“Wait a minute. You actually KNOW the guys from Quarter After???”
Okay, okay: Feature-length interviews aren’t supposed to begin with references to a different band. But when speaking with Paisley Underground icon Matt Piucci – 40-year rock veteran and co-founder of the massively influential Rain Parade – playing indie-rock bingo can become contagious and addictive. Crazy Horse, Green on Red, the Dream Syndicate, the Windbreakers, the Long Ryders, and the Bangles? (Recorded with them.) Jesus and Mary Chain, Died Pretty, the Cult, Let’s Active, the Church, Butthole Surfers, Robyn Hitchcock, Three O’Clock, and Jazz Butcher Conspiracy? (Toured with them.) The late and revered Alex Chilton and Scott Miller? (Ran into them on the road once or twice.) Then, to top it all off, a degree from Berkeley and a 30-year career in Molecular Biology.
Because, of course.
It’s a mid-April morning, and Matt is somewhere in Oakland, California, on the way to get his booster shot. Besides vaccination, the man has another reason to celebrate: an imminent vinyl re-release of the Rain Parade’s classic 1984 EP Explosions in a Glass Palace, part deux of the band’s famed Paisley Underground ‘Shots Heard Round the World’ (after 1983’s Emergency Third Rail Power Trip). Retro 1960s psychedelia never sounded so good. But from whence the inspiration to follow an archaic, trippy muse that none of their punk or new-wave contemporaries cared about?
“My older brothers had all the classic ’60s records,” says Piucci. “They even took me to see the Byrds when I was 14 – definitely a life-changing event.” Darn straight: Any human being fortunate enough to behold the Byrds with his own eyeballs may as well have glimpsed the psychedelic Holy Grail. “Then, at college, I began exploring the newer sounds coming out of New York and England. We were huge fans of the Modern Lovers, Talking Heads, Television.”
While there, Piucci met the other early members of Rain Parade. “David Roback and I, as well as John Thoman, all went to Carleton south of Minneapolis in 1975,” he says. “David and I were assigned as roommates – the school threw us together. We bonded over surrealistic art and ’60s psychedelia.” The two shared little else in common, but it was enough. “We formed a punk band in college and quickly realized that music was our path, not academics. David left in 1978; I left shortly thereafter.” Thus did Piucci and the late Roback drop out of college to focus on music.
Late 1970s college dropouts. Horrors! What would a Yiddish grandmother say? Probably that we should all be such common slackers.
“In the spring of ’81, after numerous late-night phone calls, I arrived in LA. We holed up for 14 months working on songwriting and arranging before our first show in May 1982.” David’s brother Steven Roback joined around this time as well, at which point the newly constituted Rain Parade released their attention-grabbing first single – “What’s She Done to Your Mind” b/w “Kaleidoscope”.
Unfortunately, David didn’t stick around very long after this first taste of success.
Says Piucci: “In terms of actual songs, David stopped contributing somewhere in the recording of the first record. Without getting into the he said/she said, it was just too difficult having three songwriters in one group.” Meaning Matt, David, and brother Steven. “When we asked Steven to join, we couldn’t know he would become such a formidable songwriter himself. Plus, I think David really needed to be the boss of his own outfit – he was already plotting other projects long before he officially left. So the world got Clay Allison, Opal, and Mazzy Star, as well as keeping Rain Parade.”
Sadly, David Roback passed away in February 2020. Regarding his early contributions, Piucci has nothing but praise. “He was absolutely instrumental in launching the band, developing our sound, and getting us exposure. He knew LA and the people there. Sue Hoffs of the Bangles lived down the street, and Adam Nimoy (Leonard’s son) was our first manager, who got Bill Hein of Enigma Records to sign us. We’d developed this entire thing in secret, yet somehow it emerged fairly well put-together. All thanks to David.”
So let’s get this straight. A main co-founder departs halfway through the recording sessions for Power Trip, which critic Jim DeRogatis rates as “not only the best album from any of the Paisley Underground bands, [but one of] the best psychedelic rock efforts from any era”… an album that also boasts a coveted five-star review on Allmusic.com. Then this same gentleman goes on to form Mazzy Star.
Whither Rain Parade following such a shakeup?
“After David left, we toured as a four-piece and recorded the Glass Palace EP. I played all the guitars on Power Trip, which became an issue on tour,” says Piucci. “I couldn’t play two guitars at once, so we weren’t realizing the more complex numbers. Then, at a show in Minneapolis, my old college pal John Thoman offered to play second guitar. David [Roback] always referred to him as the ‘David Gilmour of Rain Parade’.” Around the same time, Mark Marcum replaced drummer Eddie Kalwa.
Piucci dug the resulting chemistry. “First of all, we immediately didn’t fight as much. As for songwriting – and this is just my opinion – I think the songs on Glass Palace are less derivative than the first LP. No value judgment as everyone steals; it’s just how much you cover your tracks.” So was the songwriting process a genuinely collaborative effort or more silo-esque? “We didn’t write together like the Beatles, as in face to face. Usually, someone would get going, then someone else would help him finish.” Perhaps most importantly from a business standpoint, they decided upfront to share half of all royalties with the band – “so everyone could contribute and not feel screwed,” Piucci says. But despite such egalitarian thinking, it’s no secret that friction is inescapable in the cutthroat business of rock ‘n’ roll songcraft. “Put it this way: We all had egos, but some of us were more willing to share than others.”
Happily, in addition to all the war stories, the world will forever have Rain Parade’s two classic LP/EP releases for reference. Even four decades later, the druggy Power Trip still sounds out of time – an immunocompromised violation of the early ’80s new wave space/music continuum. Narcotized yet still intensely compelling, the songs blend together into… well, into a sonic Power Trip that remains as intellectually pleasing as it is retro. The following year’s Glass Palace preserves the strung-out mood while injecting countrified touches of Americana here and there. It pays to remember the Byrds explored similar directions way back when.
As Piucci tells it, Rain Parade did exactly what they set out to do as an ensemble. “We had our shit together with both of [those records]. Not a whole lot of studio experimentation, at least not with the core of each track,” he says. Favorite song? “‘What’s She Done to Your Mind’ (from Power Trip) was our first single, and to see that spinning on a turntable for the first time was amazing. But I’m most proud of Glass Palace’s “No Easy Way Down” because it sounds so unique, and I can hear that sound in other bands.” Piucci lists My Bloody Valentine, the Stone Roses, Primal Scream, the Charlatans, and Ride as potential lineal descendants. “These are all people I’ve seen mention us in writing. We’d always kind of been in our own little world, so it was a pleasant shock to meet these later purveyors of psychedelia who were so appreciative of what we were trying to do.”
Although music-snob antibodies and sheer overuse militate against it, the broader Paisley Underground scene does rate a mention. “There was both kismet and an organic development of those relationships. Lots of mutual admiration. And it wasn’t just a creation of the media,” says Piucci. “In the beginning, we were completely unaware of anyone else save the Bangles, who David and I saw at their first gig as the Colors at a party in the Hollywood Hills. It was pretty obvious they would be huge.” Which they were. “It’s also somewhat ironic that the guy who hated the term ‘Paisley Underground’ more than anyone else was the one most responsible for the perception, and that was David Roback.”
And then somehow… a life of science. Details? “In the late ’80s, I went back to school to pursue a degree in Molecular Biology, a relatively new field at that time. Similar to Biochemistry, but with more emphasis on large biological molecules like DNA. Then after graduation, I researched DNA damage/repair using ultraviolet light in yeast.” Come on – this is a culture magazine, not Scientific American! But please continue. “The California Department of Justice had just started a DNA program for use in criminal cases. There were only about eight of us on staff when I got there. When I retired last July after 30 years, there were 130. I worked on a number of major cases, including OJ Simpson and the Grim Sleeper from LA. Got a few stories.”
But always, there was music – solo and otherwise. “The first thing I did [after Rain Parade] was make a fun LP with Tim Lee from the Windbreakers in 1986 called Gone Fishin’. It was a departure for me – definitely a more expressionist approach,” says Piucci. “Also Viva Saturn, Steven [Roback’s] post RP songwriting outlet. Fantastic stuff. I’m very proud of my two solo records – 2000’s Hellenes and 2018’s I Love You All the Animals. Always the same people: Steven, myself, and John Thoman. Also, some work with Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina of Crazy Horse. Kind of incestuous.”
Like many acts of their era, Rain Parade have been touched by loss – perhaps more so than others. Keyboardist/violinist Will Glenn passed away in 2001. According to Piucci, “he was a unique musical force – a perfect foil for our songwriting, and later Muzzy Star’s. One of the smartest people I ever met.” Drummer Gil Ray played with Rain Parade from 2012-2014; he died in January 2017. Piucci also pays tribute to Rain Parade’s very first drummer, “before we played live and before we were even Rain Parade. That was Steve Holland from Minneapolis. He died several years ago.” Of course, there is co-founder David Roback, whose passing Piucci understandably finds it difficult to talk about.
So, back to the Quarter After. “In 2016, I recorded a single as FIR with some psychedelic dudes of the ’90s and ’00s – Brent Rademaker from Beachwood Sparks, Nelson Bragg from Brian Wilson Band, and Rob Campanella from Quarter After,” says Piucci. The single is “Summer Wasn’t There” b/w “Winter Doesn’t Care”. “Summer” sounds like a great single from the Tyde’s heyday (no surprise given Rademaker’s harmony/vocals), and easily justifies more collaboration. Matt also just returned from a vocal overdub session for new Rain Parade material in LA. “Vicki and Debbi Peterson [of the Bangles] came in and sang as well, which was fab.” Not sure what the rest of you are doing this afternoon, but singing with former Bangles probably ain’t in the cards.
Vinyl mavens can check out the new Glass Palace re-release. Meanwhile, newcomers interested in rediscovering Rain Parade’s psych magic should visit Bandcamp.com or look for Rhino’s 2006 CD, which compiled both seminal records into one edition.
Last question for Matt. Any misgivings, hidden regrets, or items you’d change 40 years later if you could?
“Well… I’d probably use a Tele instead of a Ric for rhythm guitar on the song ‘Blue’.”
Yep: these indie-rock ’80s weeds sure are a neat place to be.