As a new compilation hits BandCamp, Eric Davidson chats with drummer Mighty Joe Vincent about the legacy of this classic band from 90’s NYC
In the 1990s, trashy garage punk – sprung from the kitchen closet-recording style of Billy Childish, then furthered by the sub-fi screech of the Oblivians, Gories, Teengenerate, Supercharger, Mummies, and more – proliferated throughout the punk underground.
While mainstream radio tried to convince the “Alternative Rock Nation” that the Offspring somehow evidenced a “neo-punk” uprising, the genre’s true development went noisier and back to the grave of lost ‘60s garage singles for inspiration.
Bands with basement 4-track set-ups and cheap B&W 7-inch sleeves popped up all over. None of it ever sold beyond the low four figures at best, but ‘twas a zeitgeist nonetheless, given the sheer number of bands, tours, and records pressed. Hell, Childish’s output alone represents a genre unto itself.
Considering the solid argument that New York City came up with punk rock in the first place, it wasn’t much of a driver in the ‘90s garage punk races. While initially revving up one of that genre’s prime influences at the end of the ‘80s – the Devil Dogs – there weren’t many more Big Apple trash acts after that.
VIDEO: The Devil Dogs Live in Holland 1993
So leave it to Devil Dogs’ drummer Mighty Joe Vincent to crank the ignition key again when he co-formed The Prissteens in 1996. After powering the Devil Dogs last two albums and numerous singles – not to mention many European and U.S. tours through the first half of the decade – Vincent gathered his breath, amazing jazz-slap style, and considerable songwriting smarts, and joined his then-girlfriend and a couple more gal pals to give the late-90s one more Lower East Side try.
It resulted in a load of fun regional shows, songs on 90210 and the Jawbreaker soundtrack, and one stupendous major label album, the Richard Gottehrer-produced Scandal, Controversy & Romance (Almo Sounds, 1998), a party-starter slab of scraggly girl group harmonies and chompy riffs that rivaled the Muffs and the Donnas’ poppier end of that garage punk scene.
While working up a few new demos for a sophomore album, the Prissteens fell apart for the usual reasons, though also victimized via an end-of-the trend era that saw major labels drop a ton of bands and throw moola towards rap-rock and the “Year of Electronica.”
VIDEO: The Prissteens Live 1998
Uber-fan, CJ Del Mar, has been bugging Prissteens members for years to cobble together their extant recordings, and it’s finally happened in the most excellent 16-song collection, The Hound, out now on Del Mar’s Girlsville label. Whether due to the fact they are demos or the band was in a pissy mood, the tunes from the aborted second album gnash around in an even trashier Thee Headcoatees-like vein, the hooks never getting lost in the fuzz. A couple pre-debut demos and the band’s three 7” singles fill out an exciting and unexpected release for fans of growling power pop. (The CD adds 12 more great live and demo songs.)
I caught up with Mighty Joe to ask how The Hound got barking.
AUDIO: The Prissteens “I Don’t Cry”
How / when did Prissteens start up?
The Prissteens started in the summer of 1995. I was dating Lori (lead singer/bass player), and she’d been trying to form a band for a while. I joined her, Tina (guitar/vocals), and Leslie (guitar/vocals) at a rehearsal space on Eldridge Street. It was ragged and messy, but I felt there was a spark there. Our first gig was at The Continental in late 1995.
What were some good early gigs that made you feel like the band was coming together?
The Continental, Brownies, CBGBs, Coney Island High and Lakeside Lounge. The Lakeside was our home base. We played there a lot and drew increasingly bigger crowds.
Man, all five of those great clubs are gone now (sigh). So, did the band feel they fit into any “scene” in NYC at the time?
We kind of felt like we were our own scene. There were a handful of other great bands happening at the same time like D-Generation, Honky Toast, Spacehog, the Apple Brothers and more. But we really were more insular and kind of a scene unto ourselves.
I believe you wrote some of the music and words for the band, right? So did some of the lyrics grow out of your inter-band relationship?
When I was dating Lori, we were a great collaborative team because her strength lay in melody, and I’m comfortable writing lyrics and working on arrangements. I was both tormented by and enjoyed the challenge of writing lyrics from a female perspective. It was a very complementary working relationship. Personal issues certainly bled into the songwriting, but most of the songs were more abstract or generalized. “Run Back to You” was written after Lori tried another songwriting partner, so that title certainly reflected our situation. “Devastated” was also written about a fight we had. But again, not all the lyrics are biographical.
How did the hook-up with Almo Sounds happen? Were there some other labels sniffing around?
I was laser focused on being signed by a major label. I got to experience the highs and low of independent labels during my time with the Devil Dogs, but needed something different. I needed to make money and be supported enough in a way that allowed me to make this my full time job. I also wanted a bigger audience and more creative opportunities. Almo and American Recordings courted us pretty early on, and Almo seemed like the better fit. It was a new major label started by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, who both obviously had been around, though never around the office much. Met Jerry a few times, but no Herb. We never got to meet Herb Albert. He had an office at Almo HQ on Greene St. Everything in it was purple, but every time we went there Herb was never in the office. I think that was part of the problem – Herb and Jerry were kind of checked out.
VIDEO: The Prissteens Live 2/15/97
How much touring did you do?
We didn’t tour very much. We toured about five times, just in the U.S. and Canada. We did the Warped Tour, a couple of jaunts down the East Coast, a few visits to the Midwest, that sort of thing. We played with ? & The Mysterians, the Upper Crust, Reverend Horton Heat, Rancid and The Muffs. We opened for Blondie once, and played with Ronnie Spector too!
Our New York show with D-Generation at Irving Plaza was the moment that broke the band. After that show, record label people started coming to every show. Even though it was just one show, D-Generation helped us get up to the next level, and I’m eternally grateful for that.
What were your expectations going into that Almo deal, and how do you think they did with the record?
The problem with Almo was that because the label heads had already accomplished so much, they weren’t hungry. It seemed that no decision was preferred over a potentially bad decision, so very few chances were taken.
Tell me about working with legendary producer Richard Gottehrer on Scandal, Controversy & Romance.
Richard Gottehrer was incredible to work with. His ear for music was unequaled by anything I’ve seen before or since. He was able to discern a flat note in a recording that featured nine voices stacked. He suggested arrangements that seemed simple but made the songs infinitely better. It was a privilege to study at the feet of a master.
How did the 90210 slot and the Jawbreaker soundtrack happen? Did you guys go to the Jawbreaker premiere?
I don’t really know how our songs found their way into those things. We had a publishing deal, and that’s what they do. We had songs in Sex & The City, 90210, Daria, and Canada’s Being Erica. I think Jawbreaker was the only movie soundtrack we did. The 90210 appearance was great because we got a song with the word fuck on a nationally televised teen drama.
AUDIO: The Prissteens
While recording those second album demos, were you already aware Almo Sounds was out of the picture, and you’d need to find another label?
While recording the demos for the second album, we were aware that Almo was dropping us. We were unsure of what our next move was going to be. We recorded those tracks at a studio on Avenue C with the late, great Tom Price engineering. I don’t know what became of the bulk of those tracks. It’s amazing that CJ has recovered as much as she has! To clarify, this record is not just the demos from our unmade second album. It’s a collection that spans the entirety of the band – demos from the first album, demos for the publishing company, our earliest singles, and some other rarities. It’s all a labor of love by CJ, and for that she has my eternal gratitude.
So a couple other dudes played in the band towards the end, right?
Tina left the band in late ‘98. We had tours booked so we needed to get a replacement. Lori had wanted to switch to guitar for a while, so we were looking for a new bass player. Jon Chalmers was a friend and a great player who knew our material, so he joined the band. He plays on a couple of the tunes on The Hound – certainly “How Does It Feel” and “Outta Style,” as well as “Almost 24” and “Stormy Weather.” After a miserable tour of Canada that winter, we had all had enough and the band broke up. Unbeknownst to me, they reformed with Dave Lindsey on drums. That lineup eventually became the band Purple Wizard, but they existed for a bit as The Prissteens. Some of these tracks (“If You Really Love Me,” “Stupid Nothing,” and “Nothing To Say”) are from that time.
Any chance of a Prissteens reunion show?
As far as the possibility of a reunion goes, I’m all for it. I’m really proud of the work that we did, and the fact that people are still interested is incredible to me. However the decision is not mine to make.
VIDEO: The Prissteens Live 8/12/96