CVLT Nation Exclusive
Embers Tour Diary
An interview with Larry Wolfley
Larry Wolfley, a well known Bay Area photographer of underground culture and punk music, has been an Embers fan and friend for several years now. He’s 72 years old, and jumped on the road with us on the first day of our tour. He met us at the venue in Bologna, Italy, and rode with us for 10 days. He was a pleasure to travel with, and handled the chaos and drunken mayhem of touring life like a trooper. The following is an interview with him on his final journey with us from Aalborg, Denmark to Hamburg, Germany.
Kelly: So Larry, when did you get into punk rock underground music? Do you remember what the year was, what was going on in your life, or how old you were at the time, how long you’ve been into it?
Larry: Well, I always listened to the music, and I listened to it when it started in San Francisco in the late ‘70s early ‘80s, but I wasn’t active. I just went to a few shows, a few clubs. I wasn’t involved. I didn’t know a lot of people at that time. And then in the ‘80s I started a new career, so I wasn’t really involved in it.
It really started in the ‘90s for me. I got interested in photography in the early ‘90s, and I sort of needed a subject, and I was living next to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. I started going up to Telegraph Avenue, going up to the campus town, a few blocks, every afternoon, and hanging out with the street kids, and I spent a good part of the ‘90s photographing the street kids, gutter punks, squatters, and so on around Telegraph avenue.
Around ’94 or so, a particular kid told me, “If you want to understand the culture of the kids you’re photographing, one thing you need to do is go to Gilman,” and so I knew some people that were going down there, and I started going down there. I can still pull out the first roll of film that I shot there. In fact, one of the very first pictures I shot there at an afternoon event is going to be published in an authorized book about Green Day. This particular publisher in Minneapolis or somewhere picked up a couple of my pictures, and one of them just so happens to be one of my very first pictures I took back then.
I started shooting at Gilman, and in ’95 they voted to let me in free all the time, and for about 15 years I photographed the music scene in the East Bay. Around the year 2000, I got very busy with a personal construction project, and stopped photographing on the street. That was a big transition, because I had been photographing on the street for 7 or 8 years constantly, and during the time of that construction project between 2000 and 2002, I stopped photographing on the street and just started going to shows and house parties, particularly Burnt Ramen.
Burnt Ramen meant a lot to me in 2001, but I had always been photographing at Gilman. In fact, going back here a little bit, in ’95 the head coordinator at Gilman was Chris Sparks. That was after Charles was head coordinator. At that time the head coordinator was the most important person at Gilman. The head coordinator called the shots.
Chris Sparks’ girlfriend at that time was Sita Rupa, and I was walking through a drugstore one day and ran into Sita and Chris and she said, “I’m trying to get some pictures, some film I shot at Gilman, processed.”
And I said, “Why don’t you just do it yourself?” and one thing led to another. I had been in the process of setting up my own darkroom because I was tired of taking things to processors. I had bought the equipment and so on because I had the space, I had a room to use in my shop where I kept my construction truck and materials.
Sita started coming there, and she and I were working in my darkroom on photographs we had taken at Gilman. Because her boyfriend was head coordinator, and I was letting her use my darkroom, I said, “You guys should let me in free at Gilman, and in fact, we should start posting our pictures.” So that’s where the board of pictures at Gilman started. In fact, the pieces of wood that hold the plexi-glass are still the pieces of wood that I cut to hold it back in 1995.
So Sita and I were putting up our pictures, but Sita did what a lot of kids did – I mean Sita is in her early 30’s now and has two children, but she fairly quickly moved on in her life and stopped coming to Gilman. Actually, what happened to her is interesting, because of my letting her use the dark room and her getting into that, she ended up going to CCAC, graduated and became a self supporting artist. She moved on in her life, and then I was the only one putting up pictures. For 15 years, every three or four or five or six months I would put up new pictures I had shot. It started out with small stuff. Then it became 8”x 10” black and white.
I suppose I had gained quite a bit of notoriety doing that, and I was shooting a lot at house shows. During that time, I had 3 art shows at a place in West Berkeley called “Photo Lab” which is kind of a holdover from the past. They were a black and white custom photo lab, and they used the walls as a gallery. I had a show there in 1999, another one in 2006, another one in 2010 I think, and never showed too much anywhere else.
I had pictures in Maximumrocknroll periodically, but never tried to promote myself all that much. I just mainly enjoyed taking the pictures and processing in the darkroom. I’d always make more 8” x 10”s than I needed to. So I’d always be giving people 8”x 10”s, which blew people away because they weren’t used to being given glossy 8”x 10”s of themselves, or their band, or anything like that, but I was just getting stacks of them all the time.
I still have a room at home that is full of negatives and stuff from all those years; that’s kind of a lot of the background.
Kelly: Do you have any approximation on how many bands you’ve photographed? Do you have any guesses or theories?
Larry: No, I wouldn’t be able to. I have something between 50,000, maybe closer to 100,000 negatives. Back in my peak in the late ‘90s, I was shooting a roll every other day, but that declined obviously. I couldn’t keep it up at that rate. Film is very labor intensive.
One of the reasons I retired from doing it is that I never really organized the stuff very well except by date, and I never made a record of what band was on what roll. Every so often, I would go through all the recent stuff and print what I considered the very best and stuff I liked the most, but there’s a lot more I could do with that 15 year body of work that I haven’t done, and that’s one of the reasons I finally had to draw a line. Because I couldn’t just keep adding new material forever.
Kelly: Do you plan to do anything further with all of the material that you have collected in your home or are you going to destroy it, archive it?
Larry: No; you know, “archive it” is an interesting idea. Let me say this, since the rest of my family in Oregon died in 2010, and about the same time I became divorced from my wife of 20 years, I kind of changed my lifestyle. I haven’t felt stuck in the Bay Area in the way I did before, and I’ve been traveling a lot. That’s one of the reasons why I retired from taking pictures.
I’ve been traveling a lot. I haven’t even been spending about a third of my time where I theoretically live. I guess that’s a phase I’ve going through. Eventually, that will settle down somewhat, and I intend to go back to that stuff, organize it, and maybe self-publish one or two books. That’s what I tell myself, and if I live long enough, it’s very likely I will. I have the means to do it. I just haven’t had the interest in doing it, because I’ve been interested in doing other things like traveling and discovering other parts of the world.
Somebody suggested something to me which is not farfetched, which was to pay a service and get somebody that knows what they’re doing to digitize all those negatives and then put them online on a website and give it away. So anyone could download those photos and print them on a digital printer or use them any way they want to, and I think there is a lot to that idea. I might do that someday.
Kelly: And how many bands have you gone on tour with, aside from us?
Larry: Just Abrupt, besides you guys. I went with Abrupt in September of 2010. We went through 7 or 8 countries in 20 days.
Kelly: What made you decide to go on tour with bands?
Larry: I was interested in seeing more of Europe, and parts of Europe that are a little trickier to get to. The real advantage of going on tour with a band like them and you guys is that there are other people around, the transportation is taken care of. I’m totally used to the music scene, so it’s a very familiar thing. I mean, some of these clubs we go to, it’s just like going to another version of Gilman every night, I just thought it would be an interesting way to see a lot of Europe very quickly, and it was.
Here’s the thing: it’s different from being a tourist, like that guy in Prague. I’m sleeping in the apartments of people that live there, and sleeping in clubs where there’s the people that live in the city. I meet people who are real people, who are in the scene in a foreign country, which a tourist never does. I’m trying to be a non-tourist as much as possible, even though I am a tourist. Touring with a band is a total answer to that desire.
Kelly: In Europe? Not in the States? You probably wouldn’t tour with a band in the States. Not as interesting.
Larry: No, not as interesting. No.
Kelly: What is your take-away from being on the road with a band, with all the chaos, and the moving, sometimes drama? Do you think you would go on tour again with another band, a different band?
Larry: I might. I wouldn’t want to go for 20 days again like I did with Abrupt that time. That was really tiring. Yeah, I might, and it would depend partly on where they were going. The reason I decided to go with you guys was that you were going to some countries – three in particular, Slovenia, Sweden, Denmark – that I’d never been to and wasn’t likely to get to, and wasn’t so terribly interested in that I’d want to go somewhere and fly there or rent a car and go there. This way, it just very easily got me the chance to see those places. So it would depend on where they were going.
I’ll say this: I’m still in the scene, even though I stopped taking pictures, because about the time I stopped taking pictures at Gilman it was going through a bit of a crisis. I can get into the history of that, but in a nutshell what happened is that I transitioned from being the house photographer to helping manage, to the point that I am now the executive director, working with Jeff Armstrong to do the books and legal paperwork at Gilman.
About three years ago, the landlord at Gilman, because of the economic decline or associated with that, was going through some tough times, and was proposing changes to our business arrangement, including increases in the rent. The club didn’t know how it could handle that, and like a lot of people, I became interested in that issue. In the process, I discovered that some of the executive work and the treasurer’s work could be done much better. As a result, I became treasurer two years ago, and then I became Executive Director this time around. The elections are in November.
So we have it sort of set up now that I’m the Executive Director. Jeff Armstrong is the treasurer, and if I’m out of the country or something, Jeff and I work in a way that we can take care of things until I get back, and catch up when I get back.
I just feel like the bookers are what make a club like that work really, because if you don’t have the right people booking or people who are successful at booking, you’re just going to eventually run out of money. Obviously, in a club like that, you’re giving people an opportunity to book who are new to it, and part of the idea of the club is to give people learning opportunities, but at the same time you can’t have everything be a learning opportunity or you will run out of money.
People think that Gilman is supported by the City of Berkeley or something like that. It’s absolutely not true. It’s always been self-supporting. The city considers Gilman something of a historic artifact. The people on the city council that I’ve heard about don’t ever want to see Gilman go away. On the other hand, we don’t get any money from the city. We have a landlord who has his own business in the back third of the building, and we pay the rent to him every month, and we have to make a certain amount every month, or every show as you will, to continue going.
So you’ve got to have a certain number of shows every month where you have successful bookers booking shows that a lot of people come to and pay at the door. You’ve got to resolve issues like how much you’re going to charge at the door and things like that. I see my job as taking care of the paperwork, and keeping the books straight, and paying the bills so that the bookers have an environment to work in where they don’t have to worry that things are falling apart at the managerial level. They can do their job.
I feel like Jeff and I have been successful at that, and that the club is holding in there right now.
Kelly: Do have plans to continue working with Gilman to keep them sustainable?
Larry: For as long as I can, and that will probably be for a while longer. I mean, I’ve been spending a lot of time out of the country, but I don’t have any intention to move completely.
Kelly: Because I think you’re living the in the Bay Area three months out of the year now because you’re living mostly in Thailand.
Larry: That’s true, but it’s working right now. I will not move away from the Bay Area completely. So this arrangement could go on for a while.
Kelly: Going back to photography again, you mainly worked in the Bay Area taking photos at Gilman. Did you ever travel around and get involved in any other scenes, like out here in Europe or outside the Bay Area?
Larry: I took a lot of pictures at the B.O.B. fest in Bremen in 2009, and I donated a lot of prints to American bands, and actually through Carola in Bremen, prints to German bands and other bands from that B.O.B. fest. And when I was in Oakland in 2011, I put about 40 or more pictures from the 2009 B.O.B. fest on the wall at Eli’s. So all the band who came from Europe got to see pictures from the 2009 B.O.B. fest in Bremen on the wall at Eli’s.
So I did that, and I traveled with you for a few days in 2009 as I recall. Saw you in Rostock. Took pictures there, and I took pictures when I traveled with Abrupt, but I never did much with those pictures because I was transitioning out of photography. I guess that’s the exception – that B.O.B. fest. I’m really done with photography. At some point you have to draw the line, and I think I’ve done it.
Kelly: Speaking with you as an artist, did you pick up photography because you loved the medium as an artist, or was it that you started with photography because you had a fascination and an interest with the counter-culture, starting with the street kids on Telegraph and moving into the underground music scene?
Larry: Well, that’s a good question. You know, I was an English teacher for ten years at a mid-western university. So I’ve never been exactly a mainstream person. I’ve never identified much with mainstream culture, although I’ve conducted a businessof my own because you’ve got to live, you’ve got to make money. I’ve conducted a couple of businesses after I left the teaching world, but I’ve never identified very much with mainstream American culture, and always felt pretty critical of it, I suppose you’d say.
I do identify with alternative culture even though, in a way, I guess you’d say I’ve lived a pretty conventional lifestyle. It’s a way to escape America without leaving America. Now that I have the means and wherewithal to leave, I can leave America literally. I don’t have to escape into a subculture or live in a sub-culture. Actually, I can do both now. I’ve always identified with that scene, even though I’ve had a foot in a couple of worlds.
Kelly: So that scene and that connection and identification with that kind of a counter culture is really what inspired you to pick up the camera?
Larry: Well no, actually what inspired me to pick up the camera was having my son. Because I can remember the very night that I was sitting in my own kitchen. My son turned 2 years old in 1991, and I was sitting in the kitchen and got out my old Minolta SRT 101. I was sitting there, and he was sitting there in the kitchen, and I’m thinking, “Hmmm, I’d like to take a picture of him.”
And then I start looking at the camera, and I start looking at him, and I start looking at him through the viewfinder and I think, “You know, I don’t know anything about photography, and it would really be interesting to know something about it.” Not only to take family pictures, which everybody does, but just go deeper than that. I mean, back in the ‘70s when I was teaching, I carried a camera, and taken a lot of pictures just for the hell of it, but I never got into it from the angle of art. It was just a record of all the people I knew in that town where I was teaching.
But this time something happened, and something clicked in my brain, and taking family pictures and a record of him growing up allowed me to become interested in photography as an art medium. I’d always been interested in pictures you see in the newspaper, because a lot of good photography ends up in newspapers, and of course a lot of the great photojournalists of our time have their picures published over and over. So I had in my memory bank all that great black and white photography being republished from the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s.
I got into it in a kind of scholarly way, and started buying photography books, and got to really know the work of the great photojournalists and great art photographers of the 20th century. I developed my own views about it and attitude about what is interesting subject matter, and what is the way to arrange people in space – because I am a people photographer – and the way arrangements in space work, the way to use serendipity. Once the old speed graphic cameras went out of use and the 35mm camera came into use, people got a lot out of just shooting tons of film and then finding the ones that were serendipitous. It was an enormously interesting process to me. To some extent, I tried to imitate or learn from the really great photographers, starting with Jerry Wondergrand, who I consider the greatest, but other very great photographers like Eugene Richards, who I’ve met personally, and Sal Gatto I’ve met, Larry Fink and various others – published photographers who are very, very good and have something to offer.
Kelly: So you’re both an artist and a documentarian in a sense.
Larry: Yeah, that’s how I saw it, and I think that’s how people saw me. It was taking a documentary and taking it a step beyond, which is what the good guys do. I mean, just look at any book by Eugene Richards and that’s what he does, and at that the time that he was shooting he was considered just a newspaper photographer, but everybody now considers his work art, and at the time it was obviously moving into the realm of art.
Kelly: Do you have any drive since you’ve put down your camera to pursue your creativity in other ways?
Larry: Um, no unless you consider getting to know the great world outside America an artistic pursuit. I guess that’s what I’ve been doing, just like I’ve been saying, getting to know other cultures and seeing things in other opportunities for living. That’s what’s occupied me for the the last two or three years.
Kelly: You haven’t put down the camera. I’ve seen your photos. So you are kind of documenting the places…
Larry: Well yeah, when I started going to Thailand the guy that does my website wanted to see what it looked like. My attitude was, “I’m done. I’m not going to take any pictures,” because if you’re concentrating on taking pictures, then you’re not in the moment. That’s the issue. You’re involved in the process of taking pictures, and I wanted to get out of the process of taking pictures and being the observer, and the fly on the wall, and the person who’s there but not there, and start being the person who’s there. In the moment.
Taking the pictures when I traveled was getting in the way of that, and sometimes I feel that I haven’t got a lot of time left. Why make a record for the future? I’m not going to be here much longer anyway, so fuck it.
But recently, you know, on this trip, I’ve kind of changed that a little bit, and Chris, the guy that does my website, helped that in a way because he wanted to see some kind of a record of where I’d been in Thailand and Europe when I got back. And I wanted to be able to show my son certain things that I had come across in my travels. And my ex-wife, I get along with her very well. So I would take the digital camera, and my son would put them on the computer when I got back. Now it doesn’t bother me.
Now I feel like I’m there, but I can make an interesting record of things I see without detracting from the experience and that’s what I’ve been doing. I just carry a compact digital camera. A good one but not a major one. I don’t want to have one of those big SLRs around my neck like I see toursits with.
Larry: You know, I think from time to time, I mean this is just kind of hypothetical, I think from time to time in the far east if I get interested in a certain subject, in Thailand or Burma, Cambodia… I have a social cause, and I might continue to take photographs. I spent time in Burmese refugee camps on the Thai border, and if I thought there was an opportunity to advance the interests of those people, I might pick up the camera again to do some photojournalism in that regard, or if something grabs me artistically in the future in the far east I might do it…It’s always possible that I could get into it again. I just haven’t done so yet.
Kelly: And you see yourself in some way staying connected with underground music, art, culture?
Larry: Yeah, I’m still connected because I feel like I have something to offer. I think that I’m doing good for Gilman, and I think that Gilman needs help in the way I’m helping right now, and I don’t see anyone else there. I’m not saying anything bad about anybody there. I’m just saying that right now I’m the best person to do what I’m doing at Gilman, and that helps them. You know, I don’t give money to charity, but I do help Gilman out and help it keep on track, and that’s my contribution.
Kelly: Well, aside from helping Gilman and the greater scheme of things and the ways of the world, and what alternative lifestyles, societies, and cultures are doing in the world, you do see yourself as promoting different perspectives and creating positive changes in the world at large?
Larry: Well, you know, you’re going to touch on a nerve there, and what I’m going to say may not be popular. I’m not a social ameliorist. Let me put it that way: personally, I’m probably rather conservative about a lot of things. I kind of have a bone to pick with some of the great social photographers who are trying to create social change.
I mean, this has been an issue throughout the history of photography. The classic case was that in the 1930s, Dorothea Lang worked for the Work Projects Administration and went out and took pictures of farm workers, and took that great picture of the migrant mother and so forth, and helped people understand the plight of the people in Oklahoma and so on, and that’s all for the good. But at the same time, the W.P.A wanted Ansel Adams to do the same kind of work, and Ansel Adams said, “No, I’m not political. It’s fine for Dorothea, it’s a good cause and everything else, but it’s not me,” and I feel the same…