Thrash Head recently had the privilege to interview another pioneering legend of the Hardcore Punk scene; Tim "Spit Stix" Leitch, former drummer of the seminal Punk band FEAR and now with Lickity and Nasalrod. Also, please check out the documentary titled: "Little Drummer Boy" by Martin Barrett following this interview.
ThrashHead: I dare to say that almost anyone who listens to punk rock, knows about FEAR, but what some may not know is that you had formal training with Jazz greats such as alto sax blower Art Pepper and the maestro guitarist Joe Pass among others, tell me a bit about that. What were they like? What did you gain from them besides learning music?
Tim: Joe Pass and Art Pepper were very approachable and open to any questions.
They were so humble and full of insights.
I learned from them to write a melody that holds up by just humming it and not to repeat melodies, harmonies, and rhythm exactly.I think performing at your best will prepare you for opportunity when it knocks.-Tim "Spit Stix" Leitch
ThrashHead: What were you doing during the period preceding FEAR, both personally and musically?
Tim: I was playing Reggae, Fusion and Bossa. I had done a tour with my older brother a couple of years earlier and was studying African music.
I worked in a hotel in Hollywood as a breakfast/lunch waiter and spent a lot of time in the studio in off-hours recording with my friends cutting my producer/engineer teeth.
ThrashHead: FEAR formed in '77 with Johnny Backbeat on drums and Burt Good as Guitarist, you and Philo Cramer replaced those two in '78, how did you first hook up with Ving? What were your first impressions of him?
Tim: My friend Burt had been playing guitar in Fear for a while and I heard about the band from him. When they were looking for a drummer I was referred to as a Jazz drummer but they tried me out anyway. Lee was enthusiastic, creative, funny, driven, and married with a kid, so I thought he was a responsible band leader.
ThrashHead: This is a question we like to ask some of the legends, because it seems you always get a different perspective on it; what was the scene in southern California like as the hardcore punk movement surged forward? What are some of the memories that stick with you the most (both good and bad)?
Tim: Brendan Mullen had the Masque Theater in Hollywood where early LA punk bands played. You could bring beer in and pogo into your friends. No cover and it was more like a rehearsal space vibe in a basement of building off Hollywood Blvd and Cherokee.
Low key but high bpms. Some amazing performers like Carla Mad Dog and Tomato Du Plenty.
Other bands around town like the Wierdos and the Bags kicked ass too. I was so inspired. I wanted to take the 1st chair drum spot.
ThrashHead: Legend tells us that you and Ving were putting up flyers in-between West Hollywood and the Valley in Laurel Canyon when you bumped into destiny, more specifically, documentarian Penelope Spheeris. First, just out of pure curiosity, I suppose the flyers were for a FEAR show, but where and who with? And Second; tell us about that first encounter with Penelope, I mean did she just happen onto you guys by accident?
Tim: Don't remember the exact show we were hanging fliers for but in those days we were playing the Starwood, Whisky A Go Go, the Troubador, The Masque, Club 88, and a lot of places that didn't last too long. She is a really smart person that comes from an entertainment family so she got the joke. It didn't hurt that she was married to the founder of Slash records/magazine. She lived in Laurel Canyon so she saw the fliers we plastered up all the time before every show so it was just a matter of time before she saw us actually stapling them up. We thought she was angry at first but quickly we saw she dug us.
ThrashHead: Did life change for FEAR after the release of the documentary The Decline Of Western Civilization?
Tim: I think it put Lee in the sights of Hollywood directors to hire for a villain. Fear started doing a few movie appearances too. The Decline exposed LA punk bands to people everywhere. Penelope's husband signed us to his label and we started US touring.
ThrashHead: In the documentary, you guys are riling up the crowd, many think you guys were highly aggressive and confrontational, how much of that was really the band's personality, and how much of it was just to get the blood pumping for a FEAR show? What were your personalities like offstage?
Tim: During those days the radio was playing Disco, Pink Floyd, Carpenters, left-over 50's crap, and corporate rock for the most part. I remember the DJ Jed the Fish on KROQ in '79 saying he was glad Sid Vicious was dead and how he hated punk. Rodney's show once a week on that station was not playing enough to fill the void. Live, most bands kissed the audiences ass and thanked them for coming to the show. Some bands said nothing. There was a giant vacuum that Fear was trying to fill. Plus the bands that impressed us the most musically, like the Dills, were tight and fast. The ones that impressed us in look had bad attitudes, like the Mau Maus.
ThrashHead: When FEAR started, did any of you ever think the band would forever be cemented into rock history alongside the likes of Black Flag and X as being one of the pioneers of the hardcore movement in So. Cal? I mean, a hundred years from now, when people speak of California in the late 70's and Early 80's I feel absolutely certain, FEAR will be mentioned.
Tim: We played to impress each other in the punk community and to raise the musical rung a little with each new song. I never looked beyond playing the next show myself.
ThrashHead: I have to ask this, I am sure you're asked about it a lot because it has become one of those classical moments in Punk Rock history; but later the same year when Decline was released, the late comic legend and actor John Belushi got you onto Saturday Night Live. Tell us about first meeting Belushi, how did he become aware of FEAR, your guy's reaction when you found out that you were going on national television?
Tim: John called Lee and I after talking to a mutual friend who was taking bass lessons from Derf. Lee and I met him above the Roxy on Sunset strip and he asked us to play SNL immediately.
Didn't know it was real til a guy named Eric, I think, from Rockefeller center called me a couple weeks later and asked what kind of a scene I wanted. Peter Ivers had shown John some shows we had done on New Wave Theater. John had seen The Decline and knew all of our jokes. Still didn't really believe we were playing SNL til I was at rehearsal in NYC at Rockefeller Center on the set.
ThrashHead: What were some of the most trying times you had as a musician during this period? Where there any personal struggles you would like to share?
Tim: Lee began to act and put the band on the back burner. The rest of us had to keep our day and night gigs and find something musical to do while he was busy. I remember hating Sting for acting at the time feeling sorry for the left behind members of the Police. Except they were all rich.
ThrashHead: You were at the epicenter of the hardcore punk scene, who were some of the personalities you bumped into during that time, and do have at least one favorite memory you'd like to let us in on?
Tim: Keith Morris is still a good friend of mine. He would have an outstretched arm with an ice cold beer for me after I finished playing every show for years.
Nicky Beat was and I'm sure still is one of the nicest and most generous people that comes to mind. And a dapper dresser. Ha! Claude Bessey was great force and Brendan Mullen was a humble, kind, and funny soul.
ThrashHead: Some critics have declared FEAR promoted intolerance , sexism and violence, often citing songs like "Strangulation" and "The Mouth Don't Stop" off the More Beer Album. Was it youthful indifference to certain sensibilities, an affront on 80's society or something else; what do you say to those critics?
Tim: The violent songs were written when the Hillside Strangler and Night Stalker were still loose in LA. Most of my female friends had guns or mace under their pillows. Lee and I were in long term relationships with smart women so the songs were more a reflection on the sugary crap that was being shoved down our throats for so long.
I think we were trying to swing the pendulum the other way.
ThrashHead: Derf Scratch was fired by Ving in '82 and was finally replaced, after several others tried their hand in the position, by FLEA. Why was Scratch let go, and what brought you back to the band from touring with Nina Hagen in Europe in, what was it, '84?
Tim: Derf wasn't enough of a musical athlete at a time when we were flexing. Bad choice to fire him I think now as he did so much for the band behind the scenes. He also was too strong headed for Lee to compete with.
In '84 Lee begged me to come back from Berlin only after he couldn't replace me. Ha!
ThrashHead: As I just mentioned, FLEA was in FEAR for a couple years, but what quite a few don't know is that before the Red Hot Chili Pepper's first album came out in 1984, you produced their first studio recordings, could you share a bit of that experience with the readers? Those recordings were later released by EMI weren't they?
Tim: I encouraged Flea to do his own thing as I wished I had my own thing happening at the time. We'd rehearse my and Fleas' songs but wouldn't perform them live.
I was producing a reggae singer and recording at Studio 9 on Western and Hollywood Blvds for $20 an hour and told Flea about it. They were the next project I recorded there. Those recording are on "Out In LA" on EMI.
ThrashHead: Both you and Philo left FEAR in '93 citing creative differences with Ving; what direction did you take after that? Were you at a loss as to what to do, or were you in a sense "liberated" artistically?
Tim: I was bummed. I didn't even play drums for 2 years after that. 15 years and had nothing to show for it. But I never keep still musically. I kept writing and recording at home.
I moved to NYC and got a job at a music store in Times Square to learn digital audio and buy a system for my own studio.
Then in '95, Dick Dale called me and asked me to play with him when he was coming to town in two weeks. I shredded every day a few hours a day learning 40 songs by myself in a rehearsal studio and got myself back in shape. In '97 I started doing Jungle in '98 and put a 12" out as Sol-I . "Papichulo" got play worldwide. In late 2002 I put a whole album out. "Leap Before You Look" on Bang Music. I licensed one track to Victoria's Secret a couple of times. Sol-I performed in NYC for 6 years.
I also scored documentaries and worked with a lot a artists in there til '05 when I moved here to Portland.
ThrashHead: Are you still in touch with Philo? What has he been up to?
Tim: Philo lives in Connecticut and teaches C++. Smart guy! We hung out when I lived in NY but now we email once in a while when someone asks a question that one of us thinks the other will know the answer to. He has a band called the Fighting Cocks.
ThrashHead: For kids with illusions on becoming musicians what are some of the pitfalls associated with choosing music as a career? What should they be prepared to sacrifice, if anything?
Tim: It doesn't seem like work when you love what you do. If you can find a job to fall back on in between your music gigs you can survive. If you are not writing songs in your band begin to.
I play in 3 bands. A cover band just for money. I'm also a caregiver and teach music software to make ends meet.
I think performing at your best will prepare you for opportunity when it knocks. If you're in a relationship, make sure your mate supports your dreams. (and you support your mates')
ThrashHead: You have played with a wide range of artists during your career, as you have mentioned, you have now expanded your creativity into doing sound design and film scores. You are also working with some other bands as well now aren't you? Could you tell us a bit about them?
Tim: The two bands I love playing with the most right now are Lickity and Nasalrod. Lickity is a trio that plays drum n bass flavored punk; Nasalrod is a four piece that's a little more musical and artsy but punky too.
I jam at every opportunity and teach drums so I play almost every day. I also produce and am working with two bands right now in the studio.
Rollerball and Glitter Express.
ThrashHead: No one can be 100% sure what the future has in store for them, that is one of the crazy gifts life gives us, but what do you think the future may hold for you; what would you like to do next?
Tim: I have a 7 year old I am raising and a 27 year old who both make me proud.
I'm single so it would be nice to have a team mate again.
I'm living as an artist for the most part and not in the rat race.
I'm enjoying how much I play these days and my chops are in fine shape. I guess I don't look very far ahead.
I do want to play drum n bass more tho. That's my passion for the future musically.
ThrashHead: Throughout the history of rock there has been prefabricated musicians, whether it be the teen crooners of the 50's, pseudo hippie pop of the 60's, disco of the 70's and so on; what do feel now is the state of music in general? Is it pretty much the same or is there something more insidious happening?
Tim: There is a lot of mechanical manufactured sounding music. I do like electronica tho. But I've come full circle and like to record a band as a band complete unit without overdubs. No click and I try to get it on the 1st or 2nd take. That keeps it honest. If you can't sing in pitch, interpret it really well and people will forgive your shortcomings. Look at Lou Reed. I hear new things once in a while that I actually pay for downloading so there is hope.
ThrashHead: Besides the music that you create, what are some of your favorite bands today; bands which you just like to play with the volume up when you are at home kicking back?
Tim: Ha! I have a love/hate relationship with music. If I listen to the radio music in the car I'll listen to classical or jazz so I don't go into producer/engineer mode and start analyzing. At home I do listen to internet d n b radio when I'm tinkering but have to change the channel a lot. The artists whose music I download, I listen to repetitively then move on. So mentioning one wouldn't represent anything but a past moment of admiration.
ThrashHead: I can remember when I last purchased an album that was good from the first track to the last track, but it was an album that first came out in the 80's, an album which I had previously owned as a kid and which I happened to stumble across as an adult. Why does it seem that, at least with mainstream commercial music, there seems to be no more solid albums through and through? Are digital downloads turning the industry into a factory of one hit wonders?
Tim: I'm sure there are some amazing artists out there but they are not very goal oriented as a whole. Record companies are not good forecasters and are not the last word in quality.
A pretty face sells but makes me wary. I wish the criteria to be signed was not so superficial; I've seen some amazing performers here in portland but the studio recordings don't always represent.
Good things squeeze out occasionally somehow tho. That's one of the reasons I like to produce.
ThrashHead: Is there anything you would like to leave us with?
Tim: I think we're good. Enough about me.
I wish you well.
Help Support Tim and his bands, check out their sites, buy their records, hit their shows, and talk about 'em!
Remember Nasalrod is having a CD Release/tour kick-off for their album 'On A Trainset' on Wednesday, June 15th at the Mudai Lounge in Portland, Oregon!! Don't be lame, get out there!!
Below is a MUST watch documentary titled: "Little Drummer Boy" by Martin Barrett which gives a bit more insight on this incredible, and kind musician. Again, Thrash Head can't thank Tim enough.
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