An Interview with Jeff Mooridian Jr. (Vaz/Hammerhead)

Jeff Mooridian Jr. is the phenomenal drummer behind Vaz (along with guitar players Paul Erickson and Tyler Nolan) and Hammerhead (with Paul Sanders on guitar/vocals and Paul Erickson on bass/vocals). I have had the privilege of interviewing his band mates in Hammerhead, and it was just matter of time before I came begging for a chance to bother Jeff. He was an exceptionally easy interview, providing detailed and hilarious answers to even the most half-assed questions. The following took place over the course of many months, spread across a lot of emails and then arranged into a (somewhat) logical interview. Enjoy.

Paul Sanders said his first band was with you in 1985. Was this your first band as well?

It was not my first band, if you’re counting flights of fancy, which I do. The first group I was in was in the 6-8th grade zone where my best friend and I didn’t have girlfriends and were bored and didn’t know what to do with ourselves (besides masturbate). It was called “Moan and the Chairheads”. Stupid name. We made one recording. I played guitar, my dad’s ancient drum machine provided the beat (I’ve seen them for like $500 in crappy music stores recently) and my Bono-influenced friend sang lead vocals (I was a very pretentious back-up singer also) on an old, shitty, tricorder-looking cassette tape deck (Catsup Plate Records, 2014).
 Then, in Tenth grade a group of four of us that sat in the back row in a geometry class (It was an really good class, for a math class. The teacher, Mr. Lahlam–I can’t believe I remember his name!–was incredibly into Euclid.) became the Oddz (right– in a math class.) I wonder if this is interesting at all. There were no recordings. Just song titles. But it kind of whet my appetite for what a “real” band might be like.

When did you start playing the drums?

I started playing drums, according to my baby book, upon conception (though I took 19 years off after this.) My dad played music a lot back then and, apparently, he was playing a street festival one fine summer day, pretty close to my birth when I first played the drums. I was drawn to the drums immediately. They put me behind the kit at this festival, probably thinking it was funny, and/but according to my BB–or legend–I could “actually play a beat”.
 I always played drums–though I can rudimentarily play a lot of instruments. I always just liked the drums for some reason. It’s such a physical thing and it’s a neat contraption, the drum kit. How old is the drum set anyway, like 80 years? That’s it? (I should look it up.) I can’t explain it. I just liked them from the get go. They are kind of magical, (esp. when you see someone like Clyde Stubblefield or Brian Chippendale play them).

Paul Erickson initially said I was the worst drummer he’d ever seen. So, I guess I played drums whenever Paul and I played together but that is open to interpretation. (In ’86?)

What else do you do creatively outside of drumming?

Draw. I used to make spaceship models from scratch, and sets for miniatures and stuff. I used to cook a lot too, but grew tired of it after working at a million fancy restaurants and realized I might as well be working at McDonalds with the amount of creative energy I was using. An early cooking experience at the Modern Cafe in Minneapolis was extremely positive and launched me into the outer rim of the gastronomic world, but after that I sort of didn’t see the point. The whole Food Network thing is subsequently kind of joke to me–making heroes out of these guys. Usually the lesser guys. It’s absurd, in a way. (I was into Jaques Pepin though.) Anyway, I’m interested in many things, primarily creative stuff. I’m a total prole and I’m shy–most people in the art world don’t consider these two factors together all that interesting, so it’s sort of a tough gig, but… I don’t mind being somewhat incognito that way. [I think that's where I was going with this question. Keep in mind, I was drunk.]

Paul Sanders mentioned that “…a lot of times when we wrote stuff in Hammerhead, people think of that band as being either a serious band or an angry band, but we really wrote sometimes to amuse ourselves,” did this carry over into Vaz?

Definitely. I think sometimes it led into indulgence, but lately, having Tyler in the band, we’ve developed a little more and are a little less self-obsessed or something. Anyway, it’s a lot funner in Vaz these days.

When you decided to stick with the drums did you teach yourself to play them?

Yeah, I did. Mostly I played along with records. My dad plays music and he was always out playing wedding dances and the like, so I sort of cut my teeth playing with him, just to learn how. I could hold a tempo but could do nothing else, really. I couldn’t even drink. (Ha ha). He’d yell out the time signature before the song and I would be like: “3/4?, okay, wait, okay, 3/4: 1-2-3, 2-2-3″ and so on. Besides that, I took a few lessons here and there. Some of the exercises I was taught, I still practice.

I would like to push myself more with other projects etc., but sometimes it’s hard to find something that really gets you psyched or that’s interesting enough to get you motivated enough to dump a lot of your precious time into. I did one stint in an experimental drum-based group Man Forever here in NYC that was fun and became this strange zen-experience. Also, a friend and I did music for a modern dance mash-up at St. Marks Church that was largely improvisational (though not for the dancers) and did not suck at all. A crazy synergy developed. It was a great, very positive experience, with a lot of enthusiasm from the audience, strangely enough. We were really fretting about it beforehand too.


Around the time that the lineup for Hammerhead solidified, you guys started playing in Mpls and eventually moved here. What was the thought process behind that decision?

It wasn’t a thought process, it was instinctual: we hated our hometown. Fargo-Moorhead is really lame. At least it was then. They were and still are always emulating big cities (like a nervous teenager–they want to be an adult so bad), for one. A current example: they have those painted emblematic sculptures–for Fargo, it’s buffaloes. In LA, which is where I saw this sculpture idea first, it was angels, planted all over the city, a different artist on each angel. It was sort of cool. The first time I saw Fargo’s version of this whole municipal/cultural identity-symbol thing, I couldn’t even laugh, it was so pitiful. Weak, anxious smile, that’s about it. I hadn’t felt that way since Fargo’s cultural embassy unveiled the “Lil’ Liberty” one crisp winter afternoon. After literally being under wraps for a month or so–and it’s right on a bridge between Fargo and Moorhead so people were driving by it everyday, wondering what just the hell it was–suddenly, there’s a 5’7″ Statue of Liberty standing there waving at the people driving to stop-n-go to The Fryin’ Pan or whatnot. I’m pretty sure anybody who saw that wanted to get out of Fargo-Moorhead as soon as possible. Actually, I wonder how many people actually opted to drive straight off the bridge during that period.

And just when something does get interesting in that city, like Ralph’s bar for instance, somehow they get rid of it. Ralph’s was the only culture that city had during the time I lived there. It was the only meeting place for all the weirdo, outsider, less-mainstream types. (As well as underage drinkers.) People probably don’t even remember Ralph’s anymore. I’m sad now.

But now I’m angry ’cause I just remembered these other lame things about Fargo (just to illustrate the motivation here): the extreme abuse of authority Fargo truly excelled at, though not even in a kinda cool Darth Vader way, more the nebbish, ninny variety: “Guys, it’s after 10 pm. You have to turn your stereo down.” That kind of thing. This literally happened.

Naturally, Fargo had rednecks too. But Fargo had these weird agrarian-type rednecks (agra-aggro?). Utterly clueless. All these ingredients mixed in with a predominately Scandinavian/German people (no one understood my last name at all) and the bible belt makes for a… actually I don’t know what it really makes for. I was going to say a pretty warped, Babbitt-y community but now that I think of it, all the kids I know that are or have come from FM are pretty awesome, actually. Usually they are very funny and nice, to generalize. It was a bad environment for me, though. Weird. See, I’m still confused by it.

How did the Hammerhead reunion come about? Could you talk about the decision to write new material?

The Amrep 25th Anniversary thing was really the only reason why. Turns out it was good timing ’cause all the bad feelings or whatever had subsided at that point; we grew up, etc. However, we wanted to play a whole new set when the show materialized, not just 3 songs or whatever it was. We’re not very nostalgic, so I think we thought this would be a good way to support Tom and also move forward, regardless of what happened after that. It’s all about progress.

I think there’s a little bit more of a cooperative attitude between the scene, people play in more bands for example. It’s not uncommon for people to be in 1, 2, maybe 4 or 5 bands, depending on how committed they are to it. I think that’s good in the sense that it supports a network of people; they’re like minded, they have a shared vocabulary. I think that…it actually limits people’s focus sometimes. If you’re in 4 or 5 bands, how many of them are ever going to be focused enough to be a touring band? To be a serious recording band? “Serious”, that’s the wrong word, but to do it at the level I’m used to. I couldn’t be in more than one band, that’s me personally. So you get a lot of bands, and some very, very good bands, but it’s just not the same type of attitude that I remember in the 90’s. There’s another factor in the 90’s [which] is that when alternative music became popular around the time of Nirvana, everyone had an aspiration, for better or for worse, to get signed to a major label. There’s some different reasons people wanted that. Not many of them were financial, but it was status; being able to go on better tours, bigger tours, better distribution. That’s not even something people think about anymore, nor is it particularly desirable. There are some opportunities that are available now that are better, it’s fairly easy to record and distribute your own record now, recording costs have gone down, you can press up your own record, sell it on tour, distribute your music digitally; that’s better. But at the same I think that there was this showcase environment of shows, and you thought about that, of getting to place larger than where you are now, and I think that’s hard for people to envision. – Paul Sanders; TEVS #3, 2008.

Have you noticed this shift in musicians lowering their expectations and instead dividing their attention between various bands?

I don’t think they are lowering their expectations, though they are dividing their attention. I find it to be kind of a semi-nostalgic trend, to be honest. But it is fun, too. Still, that’s a hard question. The Residents phrase “artistic clutter” comes to mind. I like improv stuff here and there– Wolf Eyes are genuinely awesome, and a handful of others, but man, most of that stuff is so throwaway, I don’t know how anyone can really listen much less appreciate stuff like that. It’s like the first thing you do when you write a song. It’s the very first thing. You just kind of play. In writing it’s called “zero draft”– that sort of mistake-ridden batch of creative first impressions. Me, I’d rather hear the finished product. Less Amon Duul and more Kraftwerk. On the other hand, how are you gonna know if there’s precious chemistry (musically speaking) unless you try playing with loads of people. A friend once said that it was always the so-called “crazy ideas” that kind of worked, were the most interesting, in the long run. So, why not?

Still, I have a friend who after 6 months of finger-plunking on a synthesizer, started calling himself an artist around girls and stuff. I’m sure my mouth was hanging open, when he first declared this. I wonder if that’s how a lot of these people in these miscellaneous groups consider their projects. So in a way, the status thing that Paul mentions is alive and well. Just in a different, all-access form. Maybe it’s not so bad. Personally, I go for people/groups that “compose”. There’s an old Situationist saying: “Too much freedom leads to repetition.” I’d say amen to that. So yeah, if you’re playing in a drunk band (I want to start one) that’s one thing. But don’t tell me you are really in a free form improv group unless you’re practicing crazy hours like Albert Ayler (12 hours a day!). Otherwise it’s just 1st tier racket. Focus=depth. Awareness=change. (Two-word platitudes=nausea.) I like people that work hard and give their audience surprises and stuff. Yet they are also kind of screwing with them. They aren’t insulting their intelligences, is what it amounts to.

Pink Confetti [unreleased 4th Vaz album] featured a three guitar lineup. Were you able to relax a bit on your parts (not have to work as hard to help carry a song) or did you have to put in extra effort to stand out among all the guitar lines?

No, I just tried to do what I always try to do: come up with interesting parts but support the song and not get in the way too much.

Sometimes the production helps. I play loud, thus, the drums should sound loud. In fact, drums sound best when they are played loud. That’s rarely untrue. I mean you can turn it down in the mix if you don’t want it to sound like someone giving it their all or if it’s washing over everything. But the actual tone will be superior. And if you’re not playing interesting parts it’s not going to sound very good no matter what. Anyway, I played the same way as always, for that reason, among others.

That said, there’s some good ideas on PC, but the drum sounds were a little disappointing.
 The line-up didn’t work as well as I personally had hoped– the three guitar thing. For whatever reason, it wasn’t really as out there as I hoped it would be. I was hoping it would Beefheart the sound somehow. Ah, well. I liked the idea at least. You have to try these things. Curiosity reigns. Or should.