Second set: The Bishops rocked the region, post punk
In some respects, The Bishops were the perfect rock band of their moment, constructed to the finest, exacting standards of their time. And that’s not some kind of gauzy remembrance, at least not completely. These days, live videos of theirs have started to be re-released to an audience perhaps too young to remember their original, spirited run through the clubs of the St. Louis region. But if those new-to-the-party young ‘uns understand the classic components of what rock music’s about, they’ll see and hear in these videos the same things we used to “get” about The Bishops.
Among the finest rock bands of this region over the past 25, or so, years, The Bishops could rightly lay claim to that well-worn riff: “We deserved a better fate.” While big in St. Louis (and, of course, their native Alton), they never fully found a welcoming audience beyond. But in talking to the group, the band seems to feel that they lived it the right way, playing a host of dates with St. Louis’ best-and-brightest, as well as the College Music Journal all-stars of their era.
Says the Nukes’ Chuck Lindo, “While the other guys were either slapping funk rock or using smoke machines (or both), these guys were yelling about Salvador Allende and African prisons. I defy you to find one thing about The Bishops that isn't timeless. I could not have been more in love with a band.”
A few members rolled through the group during their near-decade together, but most fans will recognize something of a “classic” lineup, with Fritz Beer on vocals, guitars and (smart) lyrics; Tim Bramstedt on lead guitar; Ben Herzon on bass and backing vocals; and Gus Kodros on drums. In response to my outreach, Beer, Bramstedt and Kodros sent responses that created something of a definitive oral history of the group. One hopeful note: There’s talk of a show in St. Louis sometime this summer, though details aren’t set. Consider our fingers crossed.
Two other wishes: A copy of “Elf Killer” is floating around the world, somewhere, and I’d love it back. Have the cover; need the CD. And having heard the band’s third record, played at a loud volume at the home of a contemporary, there’s this nagging feeling that somebody needs to arrange for a release, even a digital-only one. But there are only so many projects you can act on at a time, so we’ll let the boys of The Bishops tell their story (with a bit of editing for length) ...
Where in the world are you? And what are your musical pursuits?
Kodros: I live and work in Rolla and am liking central Missouri. I am employed as a video production specialist with the Missouri University of Science and Technology. I still play drums from time to time. I sit in with folks from Rolla to Grafton, playing everything from small festivals to folk dances.
Bramstedt: I still live in the STL area: Glen Carbon. I'm playing guitar in a cover band called My Hero. We don't play too often, it’s strictly for fun. Ben played bass with us until the birth of his second boy a few months ago.
Beer: I'm in East Tennessee. Knoxville to be more precise, but we have such an inferiority complex about Nashville and Memphis that we say East Tennessee, thereby including the Smokies and all of its awesomeness. I just moved from Virginia where I was playing with a group called Crown Vic. Crown Vic produced only one album; but songs from that album were featured on XM Radio and on several television shows, including: "America's Got Talent"; and the one I'm most proud of, “Toddlers and Tiaras.” I've been publishing a lot, which is fun and somewhat lucrative, but sometimes you really have to get over yourself.
What groups were you involved in post-Bishops, in the STL region or beyond?
Kodros: I was in Small Ball Paul for about a year after The Bishops. We did a couple of discs for Thirsty Ear and toured with Love Battery (on Sub Pop) and Bad Brains. I played with an outfit called Inch Rist for a couple of months after that and did one show with them, but I decided to focus fully on my video career.
Beer: I was in a group in Austin called Punchy. We put out two albums on Pinch Hit Records and toured a lot, too much. I never thought I'd say that, but I actually got burned out. There is still a Punchy website and lots of web residue. I moved to Virginia at some point. Crown Vic I mentioned above.
Bramstedt: When Fritz left for Austin in 1996, Ben, Eric Harnetiaux (our Bishops drummer from 1994-96) and I decided to keep going as a power pop trio, Lunkerbuzz (1996-99). We released one CD, “Songs About Cars and Girls.” We started recording a second CD when Eric was "persuaded" by his better half to quit the band. From about 2003-08, I played mandolin in Folkhead. We recorded one CD, “Guileless.” I played mandolin occasionally with some of those members later in a band called the Five and Dimers, until about 2010.
What groups from that period in STL do you most cherish sharing a stage with or simply seeing?
Beer: That period? The obvious answer would the shows we did with Uncle Tupelo, and we did several, but one in stands out because they took us down to open the Blue Note in Columbia, Mo., and that was probably the biggest crowd the Bishops every played in front of. But cherish? If you're talking cherish I would have to say shows with The Finns, Judge Nothing, and Nukes because with those guys it always felt like they loved your shit (songs), and I know I loved their shit (songs). Anything we did with any of those guys felt so good we really didn't care if an audience showed up or not. With those guys we truly got off on what the other was doing, and that was enough.
Bramstedt: The Nukes, Judge Nothing, Uncle Tupelo, the Finns, Plaid Cattle and Three Foot Thick were bands we loved playing with. Kodros: I always loved doing shows with The Nukes! There was a mutual admiration society thing going there. And, of course, Judge Nothing because we knew those guys from way back. I'm glad we got to play with Bent a few times, and we seemed to do quite a few shows with The Finns. I'm glad we got to do a show with Ultraman once. There were some really great bands in our area.
Do particular shows stand out?
Bramstedt: Every show with the Nukes was a sweat fest. Everyone on the stage, or in the crowd, would lose a good five-10 pounds. Shows in Alton with Judge Nothing and Autumn Clock were always a blast; everyone in town would turn out. We had a healthy competition between us, yet we were all very supportive of each other. We played with Sublime in some dive bar in New Orleans for about 10 people. It was before they were big. A nasty hag flashed us while we were loading in because we told her we were running late and couldn't fix her car. She later turned up at the bar yelling "Freebird" after our first song. We played one of our best sets, and then Gus and I were really the only people in the bar watching Sublime. Gus and I thought, “Hey, these guys are pretty good." We hung out and traded CDs. About 18 months later they were huge and the singer had OD'd.
Kodros: We had to follow the Poster Children once at the Edwardsville VFW in early '89. Their manager wound up working with us. That meant that we got to do a few more shows with the Poster Children, which was always great. He also booked a club in Champaign called Trito's Uptown, so we were able to score some good shows there, including one with Titanic Love Affair (featuring a pre-Wilco Jay Bennett).
We played after Soul Asylum once at the Metro and got to meet them. We also wound up doing a gig at Trito's with the Smashing Pumpkins. I kid you not. This was in '89. It was also great to do a couple of shows at CBGB. We played with Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories at SXSW in Austin.
Beer: We had been rehearsing forever and playing forever and touring and we were as tight as we could possibly be. So we played a showcase at SXSW and the place was packed, the sound was phenomenal, everything was clicking and, not to brag, but we blew the place away. It was a stunner show. Even we felt transported. So Tim and I thought -- simultaneously -- “might as well lean the guitar against the amp and turn it all the way up.” We did and then all four of us walked to the back of the club and disappeared while the feedback howled. Brilliant. I got a call the next week from Blondie's bass player who was in A&R for ATCO and heard about our show. They never signed us. Also SXSW banned us for our little feedback act at the end. Great show!
How about venues that hold a good memory, or two?
Beer: Shows at Ciceros always stand out to me. For one Marla (Hare Griffin) was great; for two, Mike Blake was great. Three, the Bishops fan base, a.k.a. The Flesheaters, would come down and set beer sales records every time we played. The venue, physically, was insane, yet absolutely perfect for that era. For us, it was a steady gig, that paid well and allowed us -- in fact, encouraged us -- to play our own songs.
How did the group form and what was your role in that?
Bramstedt: Fritz and I started the band in 1986. I had seen Fritz's band Radio Brooklyn (based out of New Orleans where he went his first year of college) and I knew he was from Alton. I thought he was the prototypical cool lead singer. When Fritz moved back to town, he was trying to get me to quit to start playing with him. Within a couple of days, I was asked by the lead singer in Fritz's former punk band, the Avon Ladies (who ruled Alton from 1981-84) to join their band for a reunion show and to regroup. Anyway ... Fritz and I decided to start a new group and break new territory since we were both influenced by a lot of other post-punk bands. The Bishops started in 1986 and by 1988 we had lost two bass players and two drummers to road fatigue and health issues. By 1988 we had a lot of songs; the lineup of Fritz, Tim, Ben, and Gus; and we went into the studio to record our first EP.
Beer: It's all fuzzy, but it was inevitable. Alton bands are usually Deadheads, but Gus, our drummer, loved the Godfathers and the Damned. Tim loved The Jam. I went to pick up Ben, our bass player, and found him napping with Dinosaur Jr. playing so ungodly loud next to his head that I thought he was dead. I wanted to write songs and so did they. It was inevitable. Kodros: Tim Bramstedt and I played together in an early version of Culture Shock with a keyboard-playing Darin Gray. I knew of Fritz from the Avon Ladies (pretty much the first punk band in Alton), and knew of Ben Herzon from Alton High.
As for recordings, how do you feel about your output? And would comment on how modern technology would've changed your ability to get music out?
Bramstedt: The last 14-song CD the Bishops recorded with a friend in Chicago had some of our best work. It was never released, but I think the rough mixes still hold up well today. We did a cover of “Sundown” by Gordon Lightfoot in that session that was drenched in soupy guitar feedback. Home recording and advancements in technology obtainable by just about anyone made it much easier and cheaper. We recorded our first full length CD at the Chicago Recording Company, and it was an expensive disaster. None of us was real happy with the sound, but we blew 4-5K recording and pressing our first 1,000 CDs.
We also had a huge mailing list (200+) that we would lick stamps and send out cards every month - man, e-mail and Facebook would have been nice - although there is something special about getting a card with a personal note in the mail. Maybe people ignore electronic stuff now since we all get bombarded every day.
Beer: The Bishops put out one vinyl EP (“The Bishops”), two albums (“Farewell to Reason” and “Elf Killer”) and had a third album almost finished when I decided to move to Austin. Matt Fevold at Chicago Recording Company actually finished our third album and I think it's great: sound wise, song wise, all wise. It's the best we did, and I do stand by the other stuff.
Kodros: Digital recording and the internet have changed everything. I think it would have made it easier to get material out if that technology was available back then. You didn't see any bands putting out CDs independently in 1988. I remember that the only digital recording of note that we could relate to at that time was The Replacements “Pleased To Meet Me,” and that recording seemed sterile to me. The sound quality has come a long way.
We had one set of tracks we recorded after winning one of those St. Louis songwriters’ contests that never really saw a release, and we had a lot of four-track stuff because both Fritz and Ben had their own recorders. Some of those made the rounds and some people asked if those would be released, but it was just too costly.
Who was the band's wiseguy or joker? In-house historian? Organizer? Most likely to put up flyers in a frigid day? Etc.
Kodros: Tim was the band wise guy. Fritz seemed to be the band organizer. He did a lot of the booking and negotiations. Ben had a makeshift home studio that we used frequently. He was the band economist and voice of reason - and good comic relief. The guys could tell you that I was the bratty little brother during my time with The Bishops. Those guys restrained themselves from giving me hockey team style beatings most of the time. I was really persistent when it came to putting up flyers to the point of self danger. I also have a head for useless trivia, so I was a bit of a historian.
Have to ask: Any chance of a one-off show in the future?
Beer: Yes. As I type, a show is being produced to include The Bishops, Autumn Clock and Judge Nothing. Slated for July or August 2012.
Bramstedt: I'll be the last to know apparently!