The Potatomen

We got our start on a slack day in 1992 at the Lookout Records “office” (aka my bedroom). We used to have a lot of slack days back then in the pre-Dookie era, not necessarily because there wasn’t anything that needed to be done; more like nothing that we were truly motivated to do. Sometimes we’d close up shop and go to the movies or get ice cream, but on this particular day we decided to start an acoustic band.

The original idea was an all-Hank Williams cover band called (what else?) The Hanks, but somehow that turned into The Potatomen (we liked potatoes and it sounded funny) with all original songs. During our first practice we got yelled at by a neighbor to “Turn that crap down!” Being an acoustic band (our “drum” was a cardboard box), there was nothing to turn down, so we decided to try practicing on the street in the mostly deserted warehouse district of Berkeley, not too far from Gilman.

After a little bit of this, we decided we were good enough to perform for an audience, so we moved our operation across the street from a Tiger Trap show. The girls from the band came running over to see what we were doing, their audience followed, and that was the beginning of the first Potatomen tradition: playing on the sidewalk outside Gilman. Later, when the weather turned colder, we’d come inside, but only to play in the entrance hall or the Gilman store, never on the stage (not that we were actually asked, come to think of it). It was enough of a novelty, and our songs, many of them about real people from the Gilman scene, were catchy enough that we were able to sell a couple hundred copies of our seven-song demo tape, the cover of which paid tribute to our would-be origins as The Hanks.

It was all downhill from there, some have argued; we decided we were ready to make a record. Not everybody approved; they liked us as that quirky little band that played on the sidewalk, but didn’t think we should be getting all fancy-pantsy with the recording technology. On the top of that, whereas we had started as a sort of Hank Williams-Buddy Holly hybrid, we had now morphed into what one reviewer termed “Hank Williams singing for the Smiths.” Our wizardly genius of the bass, Patrick Hynes, started channeling Johny Marr on the lead guitar, and while we were having the time of our life, many of “the punx” took a dim if not downright hostile view of our new direction.

We found more acceptance playing with indie groups like The Softies and touring with Canadian cuddle-core darlings cub, who we also did a split EP with, but many of their fans also looked at us with a jaundiced eye because we were allegedly too punk (or maybe they just plain didn’t like us). But we picked up enough of a fan base to tour once across the country (as far as Michigan, anyway) around the Southwest, and up and own the West Coast several times. But while the nucleus of Patrick Hynes and myself remained constant, we went through several bass players and at least six drummers. Our second album was far more Smithsian than the first, and in retrospect, even I can be convinced that we went a bit OTT on that one (though it’s still got some great songs). From 1997 on, Patrick and I were living on separate continents, which made organizing practices a bit difficult; while we never officially broke up, we played our last shows (so far) in the summer of 2001. We also started work on some new, never-finished recordings that summer, and a couple of them will be posted here.

We had two albums, Now and Iceland, two EPs, On The Avenue and All My Yesterdays, and one split EP with cub, The Beautiful And Damned. Our original lineup consisted of myself on guitar and vocals, Patrick Hynes on bass (and later lead guitar), and Chris Appelgren on drums and backing vocals. Adam LaBelle (of Santa Rosa’s Ground Round) took over the drums, and Mass Giorgini (of Sonic Iguana studios, Squirtgun and a host of other bands) became our second bassist as well as recording engineer for our split EP. Then came A.J. Stichal on bass and Garett Goddard on drums, and finally Michael Silverberg and Will Kneitel on those same instruments respectively. We had fleeting acquaintances with Utrillo Belcher and Dan Koplowitz on the drums, and I think there may have been others.

Here are some songs:

All My Yesterdays

One of my favorite lovelorn ballads, telling the story of walking into a party and seeing the one person in the world that you most wanted and least needed to see.  Backup vocals are provided by Rose Melberg, possessor of one of the most beautiful voices in the history of voices.

1973

Our tribute to the glam-rock era, based on an abortive trip I took to New York in the summer of that year.

On The Avenue

Our first single. Based on a story in Lookout magazine, a homeless girl who died in an alley, and a girl I used to know from the Midwest who became a drug dealer’s moll.

Laughed Till I Cried

A bit precious but catchy.

That Girl

You might have heard a version of this by The Queers on their Move Back Home album. This is the original.

The Beautiful And Damned

Yes, based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald book of the same name. Say what you will about the Potatomen; you can’t call us illiterate!

Jimmy Was A Cowboy

A (mostly) true story about a guy from North Dakota who saved my ass when I was on the lam in the 60s and then came to an unhappy end.

Toytown

Rough demo of a song we played at a couple shows but never finished recording. Based on music by Patrick Hynes, the lyrics tell the story of – and this is probably a first – Ferndale, California. We also have songs about North Coast neighbors Eureka, Arcata, and Trinidad (the latter a Brent’s TV cover). But this just might be my favorite of the “town songs.”

The Drunken Staircase

The spooky riff fashioned by Patrick Hynes highlights this slightly anomalous Potatomen song. It’s about an equally spooky dream I had where someone climbed up the stairs at dawn to see me and then vanished in a puff of melancholy.

Now

The saddest song I ever wrote, I think it’s safe to say. I don’t have anything more to say about it. If you’re in a mood to wallow in someone else’s misery, you needn’t look any further!

The Loneliest Boy In The World

Did I just say that “Now” was the saddest song I ever wrote? This one may give it a run for the money. I wrote the basics in my head while driving from Berkeley to Santa Rosa, then put the finishing touches on it while driving on to Arcata. When I got there, Green Day were hanging out at a friend’s house. I said, “Listen to this new song I just wrote” and played it for them on the guitar. Mike for one wasn’t impressed. “Dude,” he said, “that’s ‘Freebird.'” This version was an unfinished demo from the same session as “Toytown,” and like that song, was never released.

8 thoughts on “The Potatomen

  • September 28, 2009 at 1:23 am
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    Great to hear the previously unheard “Toytown.” I didn’t know there is a Ferndale, CA. Just familiar with the Michigan one.

    Reply
  • September 30, 2009 at 10:13 pm
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    Did Jimmy ever get out of the hoosegow?

    Reply
    • September 30, 2009 at 10:44 pm
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      We’re guessing yes (it’s been over 30 years now), but his fate remains uncertain.

      Reply
  • October 2, 2009 at 12:17 pm
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    “Dude, that’s ‘Freebird'” — that must have been tough to hear! Thanks for all the postings.

    Reply
  • October 25, 2009 at 2:57 pm
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    1. Screeching Weasel
    2. The Queers
    3. The Potatomen

    My Lookout all-stars. As I have aged…The Potatomen get the most spins of the 3. I wonder if there are still some LOOKOUT RECORDS or Potatomen t-shirts (size Large) laying around. If so, please contact me with how I can purchase them.

    Reply
  • February 24, 2010 at 4:03 pm
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    Valentine, interpunk.com has everything except On the Avenue on vinyl

    I completely agree with that list. It was sometime in the 90s, I had an aol profile that said I liked SW and the Potatomen and out of the blue Mr. Livermore sent me a message commenting on my odd choice of favorites (it was during the legal disputes)

    Reply
  • July 13, 2010 at 9:43 pm
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    Hi Larry,

    Is there a Potatomen guitar booklet or a site with guitar chords anywhere? I live in Tacoma, WA but grew up in the East Bay and the only thing that reminds me of what a great time that was are my Potatomen albums. Thank you!

    Reply
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