Second set: Ultraman has had an ultralong career
Ultraman was a group with serious history by 2007, a time when it released a deceptively-simple T-shirt design commemorating its 20 years worth of life and times. Having bought that shirt at Sheri Ford’s late, lamented Cherokee Street record shop, Tension Head, it’s something else to think that another five years have passed, extending Ultraman’s history to a full quarter-century. And by the way, to the credit of whoever manufactured those Ts: the shirt’s lettering never fell apart; the collar’s held up and the text is readable after dozens of wearings since. You did good work.
Forgive the digression into personal, “fashion” history, but shirts, posters, playbills, flyers, set lists ... they’re all collectibles. If you’ve kept them for any period of time, they’ve become a bit totemic and are tangible reminders of the good times.
We also bemoan, if not outright curse, the pieces that have gotten away from us.
In 1990, I was finishing grad school at London’s branch of Webster University. It was a good place to be for a young music fan, and I caught shows there that are memorable to me, still: Jane’s Addiction, the Pixies, Concrete Blonde, Fields of the Nephilim, Lush, the Darling Buds. The list is a long and treasured one. But one group stands out for a special reason. That group is St. Louis’ own Ultraman.
At the time, England had three music weeklies. And it was almost essential to buy each issue of New Music Express, Melody Maker and Sounds, if only because each publication was attempting to be the publication to break bands. At the time, Sounds was the smallest of the lot, the underdog. One can presume that this position in the pecking order meant smaller ad rates.
And in the fine print of an issue in late 1990 was a small ad for a club called The Robey. And a group called Ultraman was on a multi-band bill. I took the tube to the venue, where, sure enough, the Ultraman on the bill was the same band I’d known from home. I won’t try to revise history by saying I knew the group well, or even had a full appreciation of hardcore; at the time, my ears were still phasing out of a teenaged love affair with new wave; and Ultraman was playing anything but that. Their reputation at home, though, was a deserved one of a ferocious live group, with a healthy appetite for touring.
Ultraman’s been blessed with two players who’ve been there since the beginning: vocalist Tim Jamison and guitarist Rob Wagoner, who’s become something of a regular here on Second Set. (Mind you, Wagoner left the group for two years, leaving Jamison as the sole member to play every show.) Both are note-takers, journalers of their experiences and that European tour is remembered by both, even if details of London’s Robey show are less distinct.
As band historian Jamison remembers, “It was late-September of 1990, when we were on tour with Samiam. It was the ‘Non Existence’ album line up with Matt Smith. It was our first show in England after a long drive from Toulouse the night before. I really don’t remember much about it. Our last show in England was in South Hampton with All. We ended up playing in the middle between them and Samiam. I thought it was kind of crazy, since all the times they played St. Louis we never played with them and when we do it’s some crazy show in England.
That tour was very long,” Jamison continues, as “we left mid-August and didn’t get home until the first week of October. We had some really big shows on that tour along with some really small ones, but that’s just touring. If I had to pick one most memorable show it was the one we played in Yugoslavia, or Slovenia, in Ilirska Bistrika. We were supposed to play on a stage in the deep end of a giant, empty swimming pool but due to a storm we ended up playing inside a tiny little club with about 200, or so, kids crammed into it. We spent a couple of days in this tiny town and everyone knew who we were and gave us free stuff. I was walking around with our driver late one night and a baker ran out after us to give us each a loaf of fresh bread. Still the best-tasting bread I ever ate. It was like cake, it was so good. But I could go on for days about stuff that happened on that tour.”
Wagoner’s memories largely dovetail Jamison’s, in that his memory of the best show on that tour is “Ilirska Bistrika, Yugoslavia. ... James and Jason (of Samiam) were fed large amounts of Yugoslavian White Lightning for the amusement of some locals, which resulted in bumper-biting, pro-wrestling, and a dislocated shoulder for James.”
Lineups become volatile
The lineup that played those “Non Existence” dates was the same one that recorded the album of the same name, released worldwide on New Red Archives records: Jamison on vocals; Wagoner on guitar; Mark Deniszuk on drums and vocals; Matt Smith on guitar; and John Corcoran on bass and panache.
(A quick aside on Corcoran, a man I’ve never spoken 10 words to, though I saw him play a crazy number of shows in different bands during the ‘90s. He was cut from different cloth. Sporting tattoos and dreadlocks well ahead of the curve, and wearing clothing from a style very different than his bandmates in Ultraman, Corcoran was hard to not watch onstage. He was always sort of his own entity within the construct of everything else going on around him, a planet loosed from its orbit. And, at The Robey, I’ll forever carry forward the image of him changing into his spandex pants, naked as a jaybird in the doorway of a wide-open dressing room at the front of the club.)
That five-man lineup of Ultraman wasn’t around for long. And Ultraman’s lineups in the years between 1987 and the group’s first dissolution in 1991 were volatile, as a dozen players cycled through the group. It’s interesting to hear the band’s mainstays assess that version.
Wagoner ranks it highly on the list of lineups, saying that it “was definitely my favorite,” while Jamison says “I think the line up with Matt Smith was the best time for us. It’s the time period when things really started to pay off for us. When we were signed in late 1988 and did ‘Freezing Inside’ with Mike Story, it was cool and really felt like things were starting to pay off. But I think 1990, with ‘Non Existence’ and doing that first European tour was the best time for Ultraman. ... Since there have been so many lineups with Ultraman, there were exciting and great times with each of them, though.”
The band’s first era ended on Dec. 30, 1991, as the group played a sold-out show at Mississippi Nights, a gig that lives highly in a lot of memories. Featuring three different versions of the group that night, the band played one of those gigs that’s impossible to fully explain, in retrospect. It was crowded and the opening group, Dazzling KIllmen, played the kind of set that drives a crowd into a new, altered mindset. By the time the headlining Ultraman rolled onto stage with its cut “Monsters,” the audience was just flying, a mess of emotions.
That was a very emotional and energetic night,” Wagoner says. “It marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. We didn't know if anyone would come, and 1,200 people showed up.”
"I, of course, always loved playing Mississippi Nights,” Jamison says. “We didn’t really play there that often but it was always cool to be on that big stage and of course our ‘final’ show there was simply amazing.”
While intended to put a headstone on their career with that gig, the band began playing a series of reunion shows that eventually morphed into a new band in 1999. In a sense, the years between their first reunion and 2001 were a second era, a feeling out period, as the group decided to forge ahead, this time with Fragile Porcelain Mice’s Tim O’Saben on guitar; he defected from that group, then returned to FPM, replaced by the returning-to-Ultraman Wagoner in ‘01. The retooled band released “The Constant Weight of Zero” is 2004 and has been a somewhat-steady participant on the local club scene since.
This is the most stable line-up we've ever had,” Wagoner says, “and definitely the best one since 1991. Gabe Usery has really put a charge back into us.”
Adds Jamison, “The current line up is Rob, John John, Bob Fancher and Gabe Usery who is also the drummer for a great band called The Disappeared. The four of us have been playing since Rob re-joined in 2001. Bob at this point has been in the longest-term guitar player, which is kind of funny, when you think about it. He was 12 when the band started. He and John John were both in it from the re-start in 1999.
At this point, everyone but myself is either married or engaged and working full-time gigs with varying levels of available time. Ultraman has been very lucky to always seem to have pretty different personality types that mesh well together. I think what makes this time period so much better in some ways is that it is what it was in the beginning, it’s about playing shows, writing songs and that’s pretty much it. We aren’t trying to ‘make it’ or get signed or anything. In the first go-around I was constantly on the phone and going through a big bottle of Rolaids every couple of weeks. Not that I’m complaining, I obviously wanted to do that, but I don’t have to now.
The only downside to this future we live in is that it is so tied to the past, in that we really only seem to play shows with other old bands, unless we do our own show, like we do at the end of the year. I’d like to play with a band from this century some time but I get how it works: ‘old band booked, where’s that Ultraman contact info?’”
The old guys
That’s just the situation facing Ultraman in late July. With Chicago punk legends Naked Raygun coming to tour, Ultraman’s a featured support act on a five-band bill. And while they’ll salt in the old material, expect some new work, as well. They have some, for those who haven’t been keeping track.
What: Ultraman opening for Naked Raygun, with Humanoids, Better Days, Hot Atomics
When: Saturday, July 28, 7:30 p.m. doors, 8:00 p.m show
Where: The Firedbird, 2706 Olive, 63103
How much: $15, all ages
In this post-breakup time, I think now is really great,” Jamison says. “Since Gabe started playing drums with us in late 2009, we are probably tighter than we have been in years. We managed to play eight shows last year and record new songs, three of which are on our new record. It’s a split 10” with a French band called Dot Dash. We met one of the members, Hugo, on the 1990 tour and, through the power of Facebook, hooked up with him again, which led to this record happening. We do have plans to record more new songs. ... I think the last time we discussed it, we were going to maybe re-record some of the newest ones we did in 2009/10 and assemble about 10, in total, for new album and take it from there.”
As has already been tipped, the band’s balancing the realities of daily life with the desires of creativity, shared among five friends who understand one another musically. It’s a delicate balance, Jamison admits.
I mentioned already we all have time consuming schedules,” he says, “but we usually get in at least two rehearsals a week before a show, or if we are trying to work on new stuff. It’s been a challenge for some reason to do both. ... Some of us have day gigs, other nights and John John has both day and night. So yeah, it’s tough but we manage. The way the new songs work is that Bob writes the music, I email him lyrics and he arranges them. Now, it’s even better because Bob can record the song on his iPhone and email it to me, so I’ll already have a good idea of how it goes before we get together. So living in the future now, with less time, we at least have new technology to help us out with the time constraints.”
But there’s always going to be a degree of history on their shoulders when Ultraman play. It’s the burden you bear for keeping a name alive for 25 years, playing with the best-of-the-best most times out, as Ultraman will be doing soon with the legendary Naked Raygun.
My usual line about this is: The people old enough to remember us don’t go out anymore and the only kids that know who we are the record collector kids,” he says. “It also kind of freaks me out when I talk to someone who is over 30, but was a kid in the ‘90’s who saw us play a reunion show. When we do a local headline show, like we try to do each year between Christmas and New Year’s, we do get a lot more of that older crowd. I was talking to someone a few months ago that told me his buddy was freaking out that he had never heard of us or seen us before, when we played a benefit show in January. That reminded me again how I would really like to play more shows with newer bands. I think we still have something to bring, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. ... At any rate it was cool to hear that story from that dude because it confirmed what I believed, we still rip. Yeah, the Ultraman ego is still working just fine.”
But what would the young Tim Jamison say to today’s version?
I’ve thought about how back in the early to mid-’80s, there really wasn’t a history; a recent past but not really a history. When Ultraman started we weren’t sharing the stage with punk rock bands that had been around for over 20 years or more. I didn’t exist,” he says. “The old punk rock dude at shows. So the way I look at is that back then what I was doing was new and so is being an old man playing punk rock.”
And for Wagoner? His younger self would see today’s as version simply: “Old farts.”
OK. But talented ones. Who are going to bring the lesson plan to life in a month’s time.