Formed in 1975, The Tubes
are one of the most underrated bands in existence and are the epitome of "bizarre
". They are also the pioneers of a musical craft which bands like The Flaming Lips
and Mr. Bungle
have since incorporated.
Most noted for their '75 single "White Punks On Dope
", The Tubes
have since become a highly sought after live act and have continued to embark on cross country tours to this day. Here to speak more with us is Roger Steen
, founding guitarist of The Tubes.
Ultimate-Guitar: Let's begin with the formation of The Tubes. There certainly hadn't been anything like The Tubes at the time of your debut. How did you all come to meet up with another?
We were all Arizona boys. We came to know each other through school, mutual interests, and working the same clubs. The band I was in with Prairie and Fee moved up to San Francisco a short time before Bill's band with Vince and Rick moved up. Eventually we joined forces and became the line-up that was the Tubes in the 70's and 80's. Certainly there is much more to the story and Mike Cotten is currently working on a documentary detailing the whole sordid mess through interviews and vintage performance videos. It should prove interesting.
Your website notes that The Tubes were not signed to A&M through a demo tape but rather it was a demo video. Was this a way to express what The Tubes were doing visually besides musically?
Yes. We had people around us who were very forward thinking. The band was getting interest for our strange low budget production pieces as well as the odd time signatures, unusual chord changes, and unique subject matter. It was an inspiring time. We were using video onstage in an interactive way (talking to pre-recorded clips), along with adding information to particular songs. So it was a no-brainer to have a video recording of what we were doing.
Do you remember the response you had received when your first album was released?
I remember the response more from the second album. The first album was critically praised and we were all so happy to be appreciated. It seemed as though we were on our way. Then we put out the second record and the critics didn't get it.
Were you experimenting with various guitars over the years during your time in The Tubes' Any particular favorites?
I've played a lot of different guitars over the years, from ones I've bought to pieces I've gotten through sponsorships. Still the favorite is my '57 strat. I bought it from a friend in about 73-74. I've played it for years and years. On the road and in the studio, that guitar has a way of sounding right. I had it re-fretted about 6 months ago. I haven't taken it out to gig in quite some time but I don't know, maybe I will again. I just bought a Baja Tele a couple months ago from Guitar Showcase in Campbell Ca, that is a lot of fun. It makes all sorts of squeaks and squanks that are hilarious. My go-to guitar these days is a 82-83 tea-burst Les paul. It's one of the early tries at the 59 replicas. I went on-line and discovered it was built in Nashville. It has 2 serial numbers which I guess is typical for that series. I got it from Bob Turner at Bizarre Guitar in Phoenix, AZ. where I?ve gotten some of my best guitars.
Your playing style seems to always vary and shift with the mood of the song. Elements of salsa-esque rhythms, bizarre polyrhythms...what influences were you drawing from at the time you were mastering the guitar?
|"When we put out the second record the critics didn't get it."|
When we were first starting in the 60's, my group of friends were not only listening to the radio, but also to original blues and jug-band recordings. We incorporated all these rootsy flavors with Motown, Hendrix, Cream, Zappa. When we all lived together in San Francisco, the influence came heavily from Beefheart, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Mile's Bitches Brew.
Tell us about the guitar you?re using now, the Wongo King. How much work went into constructing this model?
That guitar came about in a way via the internet. The Tubes played a concert in Stockholm Sweden and apparently the designer of the body, Micke Stroberg, was impressed enough to email me and ask if I would be interested in playing a guitar that looked like this (e-mail came with pic). It was strange looking but I thought, why not? We struck up an on-line dialog which eventually led to the Wongo King. I gave him all the particulars about scale, fret size, pick-ups, things like that through e-mail and he took the info and found a company that was willing to do the job. Next time we rolled through Sweden he came to a show with a rep from the Sweagle Guitar company and presented me the guitar. It has a shape that is very comfortable, I guess you'd say ergonomic. It also has the loudest humbuckers in it I've ever heard. Powerful yet clear. I currently use it for about half of our live show.
Do you prefer solid state over tube amps?
I'm a tube amp guy. I really haven't tried many solid state amps other than stereo power amps. I'm sure there must be something cool out there but it hasn?t come my way yet. I've bought a lot of the modeling stuff. It seems wonderful for awhile but then I lose the magic. I have a psa-1 in my little home studio that seems to stand the test of time but for live I got to go tubed. My normal set up is two 900 half stacks. They are a standard and most rental houses have them so I know what to expect. My main personal amp is a heavily modded 800 with a 1960ax cab. I also have an 800 1x12 combo that sat around for years ?til I took it to Val King in San Jose. Not sure everything that happened but now I use it all the time with my own group, The Roger Steen Band.
This may seem a silly question, but was there ever any material that became tossed for fear that the listener wouldn't get it? Or more importantly, the label?
Of course we've had plenty of questionable material. That's what The Tubes were all about. It was slowly groomed out of us as we tried to make a business out of the effort. Then when we signed with Capital the pressure was on for commercial success. The dimension of weirdness was played down. At the moment there is a guy in L.A. who wants to re-release a compilation of pre-record deal Tubes material. It was originally put out called "Dawn of the Tubes." It has some "questionable
" material. To make it special as a re-release we found some even more questionable tunes to be added to it.
The release of the live DVD appears only as available in Europe and is still awaiting a format for the U.S. region players. Why such a long wait?
|"This is a group formed to play some of the music I've written recently."|
I think they were waiting to see how much interest there would be in the Europe market and when the sales turned up tepid, their commitment went away. We did it at the beginning of the tour as the second show I think, and the band was still getting its legs. As performers we all felt it could have been better and production-wise I think the same could be said. We did it to help make the tour make sense financially. Is it something we're proud of and want to promote Not really.
How do you enjoy today's studio technology as opposed to the methods approached when you first began recording?
I love the technology of today. The new Pro Tools with elastic time sounds really incredible, but I?ve been using the previous versions for years and certainly appreciate it. I?ve even taken some training at Future Rhythm in Santa Clara. Honestly though, I'm pretty old school. I use the new technology like I would a tape machine. Usually I sync midi tracks to a grid tempo but other than that, it?s old style.
What were your impressions of the punk and new wave movements when they hit the States? Many of these groups have cited The Tubes as influences in past interviews.
That's another odd development. We were excited by the Punk movement and wanted to be a part of it. In England the punks came from poor communities and had a definite nationalist front in their message. We saw some memorable shows in London and we jumped on the bandwagon. The Tubes weren't real punk rockers though. We did it as more of a cabaret send up but some how people got the impression we were actually a punk band.
Roger, I want to thank you for your time and contribution! Any last words for the Tubes fans reading this?
I think it's amazing the Tubes still get to play gigs around the country and we enjoy it as much as ever. Anybody who wants to find out where the band is playing along with other info can go to thetubes.com
. I also have a MySpace page at myspace.com/rogersteenband
. This is a group formed to play some of the music I've written recently. I hope to have some samples up soon. Cheers.
Interview by Ryk Weston
Photo by Teague Clements