Fresh Eyes on The Potatomen

Lookout Records founder Larry Livermore gets the reissue treatment.

By 1992, Larry Livermore had been a greaser, a teenage delinquent, a hard laborer, a hippie, a journalist, a mountaineer, and the owner of a small but growing record label. That winter, his imprint, Berkeley-based Lookout Records, released the second album by a promising young punk trio by the name of Green Day. That’s when Livermore decided he and the Lookout Records office staff should start their own group — something completely different from anything else on the label — a twee band called The Potatomen.

“I was probably more than a little crazy at the time,” Livermore says now. “I was bouncing back and forth between: ‘This is going to be a major, major record,’ and ‘This band is hopeless. I might as well jump off a bridge.’”

While none of their records came anywhere close to achieving the commercial success of Kerplunk, The Potatomen’s discography serves as an illuminating artifact of Bay Area music history — documenting the tumultuous years just after the East Bay pop-punk explosion of the early 1990s from within the very place where it all began: Lookout Records.

Now, thanks to the New Jersey punk label Don Giovanni Records, the entire Potatomen discography is getting the reissue treatment for the first time. None of the albums had previously been available digitally, and listeners will now have the chance to hear the band’s music without the looming shadow of Green Day hanging directly over them.

“Back then we were partially vilified,” Livermore recalls. “When people heard the guy from Lookout was starting a new band, they expected it to be more punk rock than ever. In fact, it was the opposite.”

The truth is, Lookout was never intended specifically for punk albums. Instead, “Lookout” was the aptly named project of a man who seemed continuously fascinated with the people around him.

“I just wanted to put out my friends’ bands who otherwise would never have been heard,” Livermore says.

The Potatomen’s first LP — Now — is just such a record. It is a charmingly soft album full of tender songs about the passing faces of strangers and scenesters, punk rock boys (“Punk Rock Boy”), riding BART (“BART Song”), and spending every dime of your paycheck (“Aaron Went Shopping”). Musically, Now also successfully integrates Livermore’s odd assortment of influences: The Smiths, Buddy Holly, and Hank Williams.

The Potatomen perform in the early aughts.

“Hank was my first idol,” Livermore says. “I heard ‘Your Cheating Heart’ one morning on the radio in 1965 and it just cut through everything. The next day I went downtown and got a guitar.”

In the early days of the band, Livermore toyed with the idea of being a Hank Williams cover band (before they were “The Potatomen” they were “The Hanks”). Instead, the news of an old acquaintance’s death set him on a different path.

“There was this girl who used to hang out on Telegraph in the late ’60s, early ’70s,” he says. “This was before it was common to see homeless people; it was shocking. We were supposedly this new generation that was going to make the world a brighter, shinier place, and this girl kept getting worse and worse. Finally, I heard she died of exposure behind one of the buildings on Telegraph.”

“On the Avenue,” the Potatomen’s first song, plays like a Morrissey-penned riff on the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk,” it’s chorus calls of “on the avenue” answered with a series of increasingly haunting lines: “she walks the streets;” “no one knows her name.”

On their recently created Bandcamp page, Livermore writes that the song confronts “the often illusory, sometimes seductive, and occasionally deadly charms of Telegraph Avenue, which played a central role in the lives of many of us who lived in Berkeley.”

“By the time I finished writing it, I realized that it was a story about myself too,” he tells me over the phone. “I didn’t die on the Avenue, but a lot of my dreams and visions had been bound up in it, and a lot of it was a dangerous illusion.”

Throughout the mid-’90s, the Potatomen and Lookout became increasingly involved in the growing twee pop movement — the jangly, soft-hearted lovechild of indie rock most commonly associated with Olympia’s K Records. In 1996, Lookout released Go Sailor, the self-titled, discography-spanning collection by Berkeley band Go Sailor, now rightly considered a classic of the genre (“a classic of music,” insists Livermore). Around the same time, the Potatomen split a 7” with Cub, the Canadian twee luminaries that once featured Neko Case on drums.

Unfortunately though, the Potatomen were never able to escape being located front and center in Berkeley’s exploding punk scene.

“We got pigeonholed,” Livermore says. “I would have done more twee if I had the opportunity, but of course a lot of the bands that play that style were frightened off by the angrier sounding bands on the label.” 

In 1997, the Potatomen released Iceland, their final album. By then, all vestiges of Gilman Street punk were gone, replaced by the lush melancholy of jangly Britpop bands like Felt, and Echo and the Bunnymen. The same year, Livermore quit the label he founded, signing it over to Lookout’s first paid employee and the Potatomen’s original drummer, Chris Appelgren. In 2012, just a few years after celebrating their 20th anniversary, Lookout closed, returning all master recordings to their artists.

Now, almost a full decade after the closure of Lookout, the sound and aesthetic of the iconic Bay Area punk label lives on. Just this week, the pop artist Machine Gun Kelly released his new single “All I Know,” whose chorus lyric of “All I know is that I don’t know nothing” is a direct quote from the Operation Ivy song “Knowledge,” originally released by Lookout in 1989.

“With Lookout Records, a lot of our songs might seem a little crazy, but at the same time we were building a world,” Livermore says. “I was trying to say to the rest of the mainstream world, ‘Look at us, we have things in common. Let’s build something from that.’”

As for the Potatomen:

“It will give me great satisfaction to say, ‘We were just ahead of our time,’” Livermore says. “It could happen!”

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