A Conversation with Sci-Fi Western

The New Puritan ReView
Minneapolis, MN
December 1991

Exploring the creative process that connects performing artists with writers and readers alike.

Punk rock came and went so fast in the late ’70s that halfway through the decade to follow some folks were already trying to re-invent it by blending it in with a number of established and somewhat more conventional styles. The most common of these seemed to be country & western, often referred to as the only true “American” roots sound, although this itself is certainly a matter of opinion. Although much of this attempt at a “country-punk” fusion explosion was obviously little more than over-hyped novelty, most of which was less than genuinely inspired, it just so happened that a few post-baby-boom rockers had a real affinity for the attitudes and snappy dress code borne out of the Old West.

Minneapolis, presumed by many to be the alternative capitol of the midwest, has certainly given berth to its share of freestyle rockin’ cats who have at best fondled the roots of C&W swing and all that jazz. etc, but none have been so daring, so dedicate, so mind-blowingly innovative as Sci-Fi Western. Already approaching their fifth year since inception, these fine boys have recorded at least one tentative single, a track for a compilation 7-inch, and a limited edition bootleg cassette release. Their live shows can only be described as way gone, wigged out adventures in psycho-drama, incorporating elements of space-rock jazz and country swing, ’50s horror schlock, post-nuclear disaster, and black velvet daydreams. This band is red hot, and ready to trot. I managed to corral these irreverent critters at their swank South Minneapolis practice space – replete with an original autographed John Wayne Gacy painting on the mantel – to try and find out why in hell they so stubbornly buck the trendy culture of today’s hip and swingin’ youth set in favor of something most of our parents would’a dug. Dave Wolfe [vocals / bass], John Stegner [vocals / guitar], and Eric Frederickson [guitar] chewed the fat for this one ( – not present was drummer Dave Phelps). This band is gonna leave its unique brand o’ hickory-smoked psycho-whatsis branded upon your soul, whilst makin’ you dance with a fistful of hot lead trained on your feet. Rhino – give these guys a deal, for cryin’ out loud. [Uh, no… of course I wasn’t paid to do this …]

[This is pretty much just the pre-edited, raw interview / conversation; most (if not all) of which ended up in the published article, as it appears here.]

Q Exactly how, when and why was the seed planted??

A Dave: Me and John germinated four years ago. The name came first, the concept came later on. In the middle of the Broadway Bookstore [a Minneapolis mecca for purveyors of Adult pulp, video and accessories] it said, “Dramas – Sci-Fi – Western”, and that’s where the name came from.

John: Then I met Dave, and I thought the name was great too. I figured that everybody was using blues as roots, and not that many people are using country. I think that we kind of fused some other influences in there too, a little bit more avant-garde.

Dave: He started giving me the influences that he had – his ’70s weirdo peace, man stuff; and I started giving him the weirder punk rock edged stuff.

Q In light of country music’s total lack of recognition by hipsters, did you ever feel like there might not be much of an audience for what you’re doing?

A Dave: No, we didn’t care. We just did it for ourselves; self-indulgent. At first, people either liked the punk rock stuff – the harder, weirder stuff – or they liked the country.

John: We liked both, and just wanted to perform both. It’s hard to fuse both, we don’t try to do that.

Dave: There might be a country part, a weird part, a blues part, a boogie-woogie part – in one song.

John: It’s kinda like a little bit of roots, and a little bit of no roots.

Q Have many people come and gone within the ranks?

A John: Oh, we’ve auditioned a lot of drummers, but we’ve only had two. Eric, Dave and I were from the start, pretty much.

Dave: We were looking for a guitar player, and all these good guitar players were trying out but couldn’t conform themselves to what we were doing, and didn’t show enough interest for us to try to make them conform. Then John told us, “Hey, I’ve been showing Eric some stuff, and he’s getting it like that! We can get him, and we can form him into what we want!”

Dave: So, now I’ve got somebody my age in the band.

John: Dave’s a hundred-and-two.

Dave: Those two guys are in their thirties.

John: Yeah, I kind of dragged in a drummer that’s even older than me.

Dave: Dave Phelps [Sci-Fi drummer] played on Big Hits of Mid-America [ – in The Wad, which also featured Karen Haglof (Band Of Susans) and Steve Almaas (Beat Rodeo, Crackers, Suicide Commandos)]. He really got us into a lot of good counting modes and really good habits. When we go like, let’s just feel this, he’ll be like, how many counts is he gonna come in at?

Q Do you think this reflects a part of the audience’s reaction to the band?

A John: I think in the band it does, because the older people say, you’re getting way out there – Dave’ll sort of bring you down to earth; he has a way of doing that.

Dave: There’s guys, like, in their thirties, that have been coming to see us. Most of the guys that I’ve talked to that are that age, are from the old Sex Pistols era.

Q What ever became of the single you were going to release a while back?

A Dave: We’re done recording it. We just have got to get the money together for a 45. The sleeves are basically done. We’re gonna mix down Utah and Saddle On The Stove on a cassette single.

Q Have you been shopping the band around at all?

A Dave: No, we’ve been really lazy. That’s why we’re doing all of this right now. We’ve perfected it, now it’s time to just send everything out. Even when I wasn’t doing anything, I was getting offers here and there, but I never followed up on anything. Now it’s time to turn over a new leaf, get out there and look for a manager. We need somebody else to manage this band – I can’t do it.

John: It’s hard enough for us to get together for our plans. We need somebody to do the telephone work and just to light the fire under our asses.

Q Would you say then that this has become a professional ambition?

A John: It doesn’t seem like it sometimes, but yeah, we do have visions of that.

Q What makes this time the right time?

A Dave: Just ’cause were antsier than hell.

John: We had a couple obstacles in our way.

Dave: We sort of want to become rock stars, or whatever you want to call it.

Q Why this and not something more …lucrative, at least?

A John: It’s all we can do.

Q Is it all just about music then?

A Dave: I like to totally transform any place we play at. What I’d like to get is huge horse heads that would shoot off the stage, hologram flying saucers cruising off the stage, stuff like that. I’d like to have a whole psychedelic light show – the old oil projection bit, you know – psychedelic projection stuff behind us.

We want to get really into the video part of it. What really did it for me, is when I saw Chris & Cosey. They played in front of the screen and had video going over them, and they had everything cued. Part of the music was on the video. Video is one of the best sound reproductions anyways, so it was perfectly cued, because they had to play to the video.

Q Do you ever feel as though you’re being pigeon-holed by your audience, particularly in a way you wouldn’t want to be?

A John: I don’t think so. I’ve met people that don’t like us who say, you have nothing I can really compare you to, and they don’t mean that necessarily bad; they mean that seriously – objectively.

Dave: A lot of people grew up with country. Every one of those people – if you take them and pick their minds and say, How about Johnny Cash? Carl Perkins, Blue Suede Shoes – that’s country! They say, oh, I’m talking about that stuff they play on the radio. We’re not playing that stuff on the radio.

John: Saying country is worthless is like saying the blues are worthless.

Dave: I’ve always thought of Sci-Fi Western as not just a band but a… [projects a loud booming voice] concept, a universal-type word for… like, the stuff that we do.

John: Not like Devo or anything. It’s pretty natural, there’s a roots side, and the part where you just trash roots. You can have fun with both of ’em. Hopefully, it’s not too confusing for the audience, but from the start we kinda said, Oh well… they don’t have to come and see us every time.

Dave: If a record label wants us, we want them to like us for what we are, you know what I mean? Record companies always seem to think that they have to have the formula, you can’t have it already.

John: We’re sort of serious about our strangeness, though. I think we’re actually more serious than weird.

Dave: I think the big thing for us is getting something out on vinyl. There’s more in our lyrics – in the way we perceive things – than the music.

Q Are there any labels that seem like the place to be?

A Dave: I’d love to be on Rhino. Rhino always releases those Sleaze-Mania, and all that sleazy ’50s stuff, and they have the copyrights to all that stuff already. I’d love to take a bunch of Rhino stuff and just cut it into the Sci-Fi Western stuff. Rhino would be the perfect label for us. Our music portrays something that’s done now, because of the weird stuff, but I’d like to start doing more rockabilly stuff.

John: There’s a lot of really cool rockabilly out there, like these weird compilation records.

Dave: Sin Alley and Desperate Rock & Roll compilations – all these basement bands who had recorded one song. They were like, really off-the-wall rockabilly and country, and it’s been around for years, it’s just never been categorized as “sci-fi western”.

John: We always use “sci-fi western” as a descriptive word.

Dave: Our biggest influence is getting things wrong.

John: But, it turns out better than the original. We end up talking in off-metaphors, taking metaphors that don’t belong with each other together – like old sayings: “Now we’re cooking with gas”, “Don’t get your dander up” – old sayings from the ’20s to the ’50s.

John: We’re definitely looking backwards at the future.

Q Do you think those ideas come across with the same impact today, through your process of translating them?

A John: I think a lot of people I’ve talked to get the right idea.

Dave: It’s a certain type of people; that’s why I think it would be more of a cult following. If we got big it would be like… if they do understand it, they really understand it. If they don’t understand it, they just don’t.

John: They really have fun with it.

Q What kind of stories find themselves in your songs?

A John: I like to write about characters – especially, if I can just write about a person I know, in a way that’s kind of funny. I actually know enough weird people, I can just write pretty directly about what they just are.

Dave: We don’t want to be too mysterious, either.

John: I tend to like weird characters. I wrote one about John Wayne Gacy, but that’s nothing new anymore. Someone else wrote about him too, but I didn’t know about it.

Dave: A lot of people wrote songs about him.

John: I just found out recently; I didn’t know about that. [Points to a painting on the mantel] That’s a John Wayne Gacy original.

Dave: Hand-signed by him and everything. There’s only seventy-five of those.

John: You just write to him. You have to pay like sixty bucks.

Dave: That’s the “sci-fi” end of it – serial killers… the psychology.

John: I’ve been fascinated by murderers, psychotic people. I don’t really advocate it …it was the method I was fascinated by – the lyrics are a kind of dry humor.

Dave: That’s just it – some of the stuff we get we don’t want people to know, because we don’t want to advocate anything like that.

John: That’s exactly what psychotics want!

Dave: That’s another sci-fi edge, you know – people that have no conscience whatsoever, who go around killing people.

Q Of course, someone could always wind up blaming some twisted deed on the fact that he listened to Sci-Fi Western.

A John: We could become stars then! Yeah, I started killing people after I listened to “Saddle on the Stove” a hundred and fifty-four times!!

Dave: That stuff is reality. Sci-fi has to do with a lot of the gore films and horror films, and stuff like that, too. That’s a big influence.

John: It’s hard to ignore; it’s like going to John Waters films.

Q You mentioned earlier, comics as another influence. Any in particular?

A Dave: I never read a whole bunch of comics; the comic art was what came across with me. John turned me on to stuff like Love And Rockets. I’ve always been into stuff like Freak Brothers, and Big Daddy Roth, when I was a kid; Rat Fink, stuff like that …Tales From the Crypt.

John: The only old comics I ever liked were the Superman / Bizarro World. I didn’t really like Superman, but I loved Bizarro World – Superman, screwed up, this backwards planet that was square; I really liked the idea of that. Now I like the comic book Hate [by Peter Bagge] – I know a lot of people that are like the people in Hate; that’s kind of scary!

Dave: I’ve never been really into reading comic books except for Love And Rockets, and stuff like that, that’s got good stories in it; but I think seeing the art and letting me create my own sort of comics in my mind from that – like Robert Williams puts so many things into a painting, you can create your own storyboard, whatever you want.

© J.Free / The New Puritan ReView; 1991; 2022