Savage Republic guitarist Ethan Port was staying at the Marriott World Trade Center hotel in New York last Sept. 11. "A couple months later ... I realized that it was ironic that I used to be in a band that incorporated all this sensationalistic imagery," Port says during an interview at his current Hunters Point studio. "The first Savage Republic album depicts university professors getting executed in Iran, and I wore a T-shirt of that image all the time. I even had one in my suitcase at the time [of the attacks]."
Beyond its use of prescient imagery, Savage Republic was one of the first bands to marry Middle Eastern and Mediterranean folk music to punk ideals, industrial beats, and Germanic guitar drones. The resulting sound wound up influencing such art-rock contemporaries as Sonic Youth and Jane's Addiction and presaging later groups like Godspeed You Black Emperor, Mogwai, and locals Tarentel. Defunct since 1989, the act is reuniting for a short, one-time tour this week, coinciding with S.F.'s Beyond the Pale music festival and the recent reissue of Savage Republic's out-of-print catalog. The mysteries of the Republic are about to be rerevealed.
Savage Republic emerged from, as Port puts it, "the fatalistic, yet anything-is-possible," punk scene of early '80s Los Angeles. Initially three UCLA art students -- guitarist Bruce Licher, vocalist/guitarist Phillip Drucker (aka Jackson Del Rey), and drummer Mark Erskine -- and a 17-year-old punk bassist named Jeff Long, the group began by banging on scrap metal and musical instruments in the campus utility tunnels and parking structures. Following a name change from Africa Corps to Savage Republic (a term used later to describe Ayatollah Khomeini's fundamentalist regime), the band released four LPs, one live effort, and one EP, rotating members in and out and in again. Keyboardist Robert Loveless joined in 1982, followed by Port, guitarist Greg Grunke, bassist Thom Fuhrmann, and drummer Brad Laner. "Savage Republic was like a bad California marriage, because the band kept breaking up, and everyone's old partners kept coming back into the relationship," Port explains. "For some reason, we never thought that this was a stupid thing to do."
While the players' relationships were inconsistent, the concept remained the same. "Some of the mythology of Savage Republic was quite intentional, coming from Bruce's design choices," explains Port. "It was mostly unspoken, but we really felt like we were creating this soundtrack or telling the story of the Republic with the music." Song titles such as "Trek," "Siege," and "Spice Fields" suggested historical narratives, while sleeve photos depicted the members in desert plains and train depots. Other tunes -- "Lebanon 2000," "Moujahadeen," "Exodus" -- clearly referenced the turbulent Middle East. The band adopted the Nazi Afrika Corps logo, but cleverly replaced the offending swastika with the crescent moon and star of Islam. "That was vaguely about the invaded reappropriating the symbol of the invaders," says Port. "We had a total L.A. approach: The graphics look really intense and historical but have no specific political meaning."
For those graphics, Licher learned letterpress printing, which he discovered in a class offered at the Women's Graphic Center in Los Angeles. Using old metal plates with raised lettering and images, he hand-printed illustrations on recycled chipboard, lending an otherworldly, arcane feel to fliers and record sleeves. When the band's debut, Tragic Figures, came out in 1982, the graphics and the noisy "exotic" punk music -- distinguished by Egyptian-influenced guitar scales, metallic percussion, and heavy, distorted bass -- made the album one of the most collectible records of the underground. While Savage Republic's emphasis seemed to be on making a unique racket, there were also several effective anti-authoritarian rants, including the somewhat tongue-in-cheek "Kill the Fascists" and the sarcastic tirade "Real Men," which later appeared in the film Silence of the Lambs.
"The original idea with the first album was to make a record that looked and felt like it came from some other culture," explains Licher via e-mail, "so that when someone was flipping through the record bins (remember those?), you'd pull it out and wonder, '"Where the hell did this come from?' I think that because of the graphics it made people approach our music expecting something different than the other music that was out there, and I think we delivered on that."
(Over time, Licher would put out a whole catalog of gorgeous releases on the band's Independent Project Records, including Camper Van Beethoven's Telephone Free Landslide Victory, which was nominated for a Grammy for best album art. IPR later became a renowned design and print press, which Licher still runs from his home in Arizona.)
Savage Republic's subsequent releases -- Trudge, Ceremonial, Live Trek, Jamahiriya Democratique et Populaire de Sauvage, and Customs -- expanded the more instrumental and cinematic aspects of its sound, adding horns, Appalachian dulcimer, mandolin, keyboards, and "monotone" guitar (with the strings tuned to one droning chord). In particular, 1988's Jamahiriya saw the band in peak form, turning an old Greek song into a punk anthem and adding Middle Eastern guitar to a cover of Alternative TV's "Viva Le Rock n' Roll." Customs was almost as solid, including a gorgeous oud/saz duet, "Song for Adonis," and the wide-screen psychedelia of "Birds of Pork."
While the band's albums garnered a small cult following, the group's live shows became legendary. Underneath huge banners with the seal of the Republic, the half-dozen members would trade instruments, beat on flaming oil drums, and burn figures in effigy. The band occasionally performed wild, apocalyptic shows in the Mojave Desert with the likes of Einstürzende Neubauten, Survival Research Laboratories, and Psi Com, Jane's Addiction leader Perry Farrell's first band. The SR live experience was powerful enough to impress even the hardcore punks who turned up.
"The punk scene then was at times pretty scary and violent, with L.A. cops and Nazi skinheads, which forced us to get more aggressive in our live performances," says Port, adding with a laugh, "It kept Savage Republic from being a wussy art-band."
By 1989, however, Licher was the sole original member, and he decided to break up the band to pursue mellow instrumental epics with a new group called Scenic (which has its third album, The Acid Gospel Experience, coming out on Hidden Agenda in January). Loveless and Drucker concentrated on their side project, 17 Pygmies, while Fuhrmann and Grunke worked on Autumnfair. Port pursued Death Ride 69 before landing in the Bay Area in 1996, where he formed F-Space (and Mobilization Records) with local noise artist Scot Jenerik.
After Savage Republic's demise, the group's albums went out of print, becoming available only on eBay at inflated prices. The band received few critical acknowledgments, save for a favorable mention in Richie Unterberger's 1998 book Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll.
But in 2001 Ethan Port took the money from an Internet stock cash-out and financed an elaborate reissue of the act's four studio albums, complete with letterpress printing. Talk of a reunion to promote the Mobilization Records box set followed. Bassist/guitarist Thom Fuhrmann says via e-mail, "Ethan and I were the catalysts [for the reunion], because we both strongly believe that the band broke up right when we were about to go somewhere. I guess there is a strong feeling of unfinished business."
Scot Jenerik explains, "One of the things that I think really kicked it off was the Beyond the Pale festival last year. They played Savage Republic's 'Birds of Pork' over the PA system. Ethan went up to thank the sound guy for playing it, and he said, 'Oh no, it's not me -- Neurosis has me play this before every show.'"
After Neurosis asked Savage Republic to perform at this year's Beyond the Pale event, Port made a few phone calls to promoters and found that there was interest for shows in L.A., Portland, Chicago, and New York. For this week's tour, the reconstituted band will include Port, Licher, Loveless, Fuhrmann, and Grunke, with Joel Connell from Man Is the Bastard on drums. "We sound better than we ever did," assures Port. When asked if he'll be setting things on fire again, however, he responds, "Officially, no."
The timing of a Savage Republic reunion makes perfect sense, since the current political climate is a throwback to the '80s. Now, a line from Tragic Figures' "Procession" seems more relevant than ever: "The crisis of our country is not caused by external forces/ The danger lies within." Port has this lyric emblazoned on the Mobilization Web site (www.mobilization.com), along with his harrowing account of his experience during the World Trade Center attacks.
"In the months after 9/11," Port says, "I actually found art and music to have little meaning to me. I was completely terrorized and I shut down. But as I healed, I was able to step back from the situation and realize that a terrible act by terrible people should not be allowed to destroy art and culture. My love of Middle Eastern culture and of culture in general should not be destroyed by some very tragic and horrible events."