Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Hershel Savage and the American Flag: A retrospective and interview with Ayal Senior



I used to love to go to Used Kids Records in Columbus, Ohio. It was one of my favorite record stores anywhere. Ron House from Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments worked there, and Used Kids always had tons of cheap CDs and vinyl as well as interesting locally released stuff on OKra Records, which was the Used Kids label run by Dan Dow. The Schramms' Walk to Delphi was one of my favorite releases on OKra. 

I bought my first Guided by Voices CD at Used Kids—Vampire on Titus/Propeller—when Scat Records first put it out. A friend of mine who had previously seen GBV live suggested that I get the CD. I did, and as I paid for it and the gazillion other records I bought that day, Ron House told me that Propeller was better than Vampire on Titus. I think he was right, but I liked them both. That was in 1993.

I went to Used Kids again in 1998 and saw a CD by Hershel Savage and the American Flag on the wall. A handwritten sign said that the release was on GBV's label, Rockathon. 

That was enough for me. I bought it without ever having heard a note. 

In the four-hour car ride home, I listened to it and loved it. It sounded like kids trying to sound like GBV and succeeding! "Who Knows Where the Robots Are Hidden" was like the McTells aping GBV, or vice versa. Singer Evan Weisblott's voice kind of reminded me of a cross between a young Robert Pollard and the McTells, because of his exaggerated fake accent and the four-track cassette fidelity of the whole thing.

Then the band disappeared. I recently got in touch with the other half of Hershel Savage, Ayal Senior, and asked him to reminisce with Music Weird about those halcyon days, and he obliged. This interview is from June 30, 2014.


What did you and Evan Weisblott do before you started the group?
 

Evan was a graphic design student. I was doing my undergrad in philosophy. It was definitely a shared vision, equal writing partnership, although the image and impetus of the "look" of the band could definitely be attributed to Evan's love of all things pop and op art.


How did the group form?

Evan and I played in a band in high school called Mower Queen. After that broke up, we wanted to do something else that was rooted in our love of the Zombies, the Who, Beatles, and Guided by Voices. Evan loved bubblegum music and had a ridiculous record collection. 

We set to work recording songs on 4-track and singing into hand-held cassette recorders. We took a trip to New York and walked the streets making up songs. I think that's when we wrote "Tour 65." We met GBV opening for Urge Overkill in Toronto, and they told us to come open for them the next night in London, Ontario, which we did. It was a crazy time. 

We ended up staying in touch with them, and when Robert Pollard heard the songs we wrote, he freaked out and said he wanted to release it on his label, Rockathon. 






Where did the band name come from? Did it create any identity conflicts with Herschel Savage?
 

The name of the band was a derivative of a fake GBV band name, "Dick Clark & The Electric Indians." We were sitting in a burger shop one day trying to figure out a good name, and Evan came up with "Hershel Savage & The American Flag." Herschel Savage, of course, being the name of a porn star at the time. I had no idea till later. 


The band's sound, songs, and lyrics evoked Guided by Voices. Was that your intention?
 

We were living on a steady diet of Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and all the other mod, pop, baroque, and bubblegum pop we could get our hands on. It was totally our intention to sound pop.


How did you end up on Rockathon? And how did that work out for you?  

Robert Pollard was very encouraging of our music. He expressed interest in releasing our album when he heard it and sequenced it. He even gave us an unreleased GBV song to record, "Tropical Robots." It was pretty much like a dream. Just being associated with GBV for us was incredible. We were very young—19, 20, something like that. An amazing experience. We were fortunate to tour with them on the 1999-2000 Do The Collapse tour. Unreal. 


The album got some attention. What were your best experiences during that time?
 
Making the record with Brenndan McGuire. Opening for Sloan and GBV at Irving Plaza in Manhattan. Singing "Dragons Awake" with Pollard on stage. Sleeping at Robert Pollard's house. Pollard writing me out a two-page spread of fake-band names in my journal.



You mentioned in another interview that you started on a second album before the band broke up. How far did you get with those sessions? What was the second album going to be like? Did you have a title for it?

We finished the demos for a second album. It was gonna be called To the Max or something like that. Some of the songs were really cool. There was one I remember called "Destiny" that I really liked. 



For GBV fans who bought the album because it was on Rockathon and maybe aren't familiar with your other work, can you talk about your solo recording career and what you've been doing with John Fahey?

Since the time I met Robert Pollard, I had always been involved in avant-garde, improvised, and experimental music. I brought Arthur Doyle to Toronto to perform. I had met Alan Licht and Loren Connors and made a short film using the music of the No Neck Blues Band. Licht passed the video to them, and I ended up being the first person to bring the No Neck Blues Band and Sun-Burned Hand of the Man into Canada. Through No Neck, I met John Fahey and that kind of turned into 3 Day Band, recordings I made with him, and Vampire Vultures, his book that I edited and compiled. I've never stopped making music. Medusa Editions is the label that I run now that lets me publish my own music as well others that I admire. 



Discography


S/T (Rockathon 004, 1998)


  • Tour 65 / Let's Get Together / We've Finally Found Me / I Died in 1972 / Candy / Dr. Rock / Midget Radar / I'm Pop / Painted Grape // Come Along if You Catch Me / The 3 on 1 Experiment (It's All About You) / Send Me Away / Giant Giraffes / Naval Angel in Danger / Who Knows Where the Robots Are Hidden / Tropical Robots / Goodnight My Janitor / John P. Hypocrite




Just Like Friends EP (Champagne!, 1999)
  • The Sunshine World / Oh, My Mind! / Pledge / You and Me Make Miracles



CBC Sessions (unreleased, 2000, played on air, Canadian Broadcast Corporation)
  • 4 songs recorded with a string section

To the Max (unreleased demos for the second album) 
  • Destiny, unknown other songs

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