The New Tweedy Brothers interview with Fred Lackaff

September 7, 2017

The New Tweedy Brothers interview with Fred Lackaff

Originally from Portland, the New Tweedy Brothers were formed by brothers Fred and Danny Lackaff plus Dennis Fagaly and Steve Ekman. In 1966, they relocated to San Francisco, where they were part of the exploding, nascent psychedelic Ballroom scene, influencing none other than Jerry Garcia and sharing stage with bands like The Warlocks (pre–Grateful Dead), Quicksilver and Big Brother among others. Upon returning to Oregon, they self–released in 1968 their only album, housed in a striking hexagonal, over–sized silver foil cover, now a holy grail between psychedelic collectors. Innocent vocal harmonies, fuzzy bass, jangly guitars, raga sounds… Guerssen Records recently made a wonderful reissue and they managed to get us in contact with Fred Lackaff to talk about their blend of psychedelic jangly folk rock.
Where and when did you grow up? Was music a big part of your family life? Did the local music scene influence you or inspire you to play music?
I was born in Vancouver Wash. in 1941, so I got a good taste of the era of crooners and big band jazz and boogie woogie. Both my parents were talented performers as well as record collectors, so we had access to the sounds of the time; my favorites were the boogie, couldn’t believe what those guys were doing with their left hands and with the rhythm. Most nights after dinner mom and dad would run thru their repertoire on piano and sax: “Sleepy Time Gal,” “I’m Confessin’ That I Love You,” “Sunny Side of The Street,” come to mind, all the pop hits of the day. 

When did you begin playing music? What was your first instrument? Who were your major influences?
I took piano lessons in grade school, but it didn’t take. When I was 11 or so, I bought a uke from the Wards catalog and felt an immediate connection, was playing “Davy Crocket” in no time, and never looked back. I caught on to the folk music scene in high school. My brother Dan and I formed a duo and we played the hootenannies and coffeehouses in Portland and Vancouver, playing mostly the folk fare of the time.
I remember waiting at the stage door to get the banjo I had at the time autographed by the Kingston Trio. They were at their peak and they were my heroes.
What bands were you a member of prior to the formation of The New Tweedy Bros? How old were you when your first band formed? What was your role in these bands? When was the first gig you ever played? Do you recall the first song you performed before an audience?
Shortly after I got my uke, I was at a family party and I got my cousin Chris to join me in “Mockingbird Hill”. I still remember the thrill of that performance. We were in the fifth grade, I think. 
When I was in high school, I acquired an old banjo that I tuned like the uke so I wouldn’t have to learn all new chord fingerings. My brother Dan was learning the guitar, and we started learning the folk and country tunes of the time.
We knocked around for a couple of years doing our folk act, and when folk and rock collided, we jumped right in. In the fall of 1965 we joined up with our old friend and fellow folkie Dennis Fagaly, determined to be a “folk-rock” band. We had an assortment of folkie instruments, guitars, banjo, autoharp, but none of us had any experience with bass or drums, so we went out and bought an old set of drums and an electric bass, and took turns trying them out. Dan was the only one who could make the drums work, so he got to be the drummer, and Dennis got the feel of the bass pretty quickly, so he was the bass player. That left me on the guitar, but I was strictly a rhythm player, so we quickly recruited a young hot shot guitar player named Steve Ekman. Steve also sang, wrote prolifically, and was a major heartthrob.
We were, all but Steve, living in what we called the Broadway House in downtown Portland, so practice was easy; we started out doing a lot of covers, but soon were doing mostly originals. We had so much material to choose from it was ridiculous. All these guys wrote songs in their sleep. I was the least gifted as a writer, although I did manage to get off a couple of tunes. 
What was the first song you ever composed? 
The first song I composed is buried in well deserved obscurity.
Next question.
Ha-ha. So when and where did The New Tweedy Bros play their first gig? Do you remember the first song the band played? How was the band accepted by the audience?
Our first gig was at a club called “The Folksingers” in Portland. I don’t remember the first song, but one of the first was “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”, a Flatt and Scruggs tune that Dennis revised the chords to.
The response was very gratifying. I had been afraid that we would be laughed off the stage, but people seemed to really like us. 
The New Tweedy Brothers in 1966.
What sort of venues did The New Tweedy Brothers play early on? Where were they located? 
There weren’t a lot of venues available to us; we were definitely counterculture, so we played mostly coffeehouses. The dancehall scene was just opening up in San Francisco, but Portland was a bit behind.
Our friend Jim Agnew advised us to get ourselves down to the Bay Area, where the action was. He undertook managing us and supervised our move to California.
We lasted six months there, played on all the major stages in the area, soaked up the California culture, but didn’t make any progress in hooking up with a record label. We finally succumbed to homesickness, and decided to retreat to Portland, where, for awhile, we were treated like returning heroes.
How did you decide to use the name “The New Tweedy Brothers?”
My grandfather had an old 78 of “The Chicken Reel” by “The Tweedy Brothers.” When we were kids we played that record right thru the grooves. In looking for a name, I particularly didn’t want to compete with all the psychedelic names already out there, and I suggested that nothing could sound less psychedelic than “The Tweedy Brothers” and just so there wouldn’t be any confusion, we should be “The NEW Tweedy Brothers.” Nobody had any better ideas, so that’s what we went with. 
What was the writing and arranging process like? Did all the members have input?
Generally, whoever wrote the song, sang the song; the rest would fill in with harmonies, backup; arranging was pretty casual, pretty basic.
You released a single on Dot Records. What can you tell us about “Good Time Car”/“Terms of, You Love Me?”
We had become friends with Bonnie Guitar. She was interested in producing us and got us studio time to make a demo on Dot. She produced the single. Dot liked us and offered us a contract but we decided that Dot was too stodgy ( their biggest seller was PAT BOONE) and didn’t sign.
The A side, “Good Time Car” was a song Dan And Dennis co-wrote, I don’t remember who wrote what. It was truly a good time song, about summer and the old swimming hole. The other song, the B side, was one of my early songs. Most of my songs embarrass me now, but I suppose it’s normal for an old man to be embarrassed by the works of his youth.
Did the single garner any radio airplay?
The record got airplay in Portland on KISN, which helped get us a gig opening for the Beach Boys at the Portland Coliseum.
What influenced the band’s sound?
There were a lot of obvious influences: Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Byrds.
But some were more obscure. Dan’s song “I’d Go Anywhere” is right out of old barrelhouse blues of the 30s. We got the reputation of a good time band, our music was pretty upbeat. We got compared to the Lovin’ Spoonful a lot.
Did the size of audiences increase following the release of these singles?
I don’t recall much impact on audience size.
What’s the story behind your The New Tweedy Bros! album? Where did you record it? What kind of equipment did you use and who was the producer? How many hours did you spend in the studio? 
By 1968 the future of the band was looking less certain and we wanted a record of our sound in case we did break up. We were also hoping to catch the attention of a major label.
The recording was done in the basement studio of Ken Bass. He had a pretty fancy eight-track machine. Rick Keefer was the producer. We spent parts of several days in the studio. Rick paid for our studio time in return for ownership of the tape. It was not a smart arrangement on our part, but it was the only way we could afford to do it.
Was there a certain concept behind it? 
Please share your recollections of the sessions. What were the influences and inspirations for the songs recorded? How were the songs that made it onto the LP selected? 
As was popular in groups at the time, we did everything democratically, with no one really in charge. The writer of the song we were working on got to do the arranging, but we all pitched in with ideas. I used my guitar as a cello on “Wheels of Fortune.”
We tried to showcase each member of the group, so there was a lot of variety of input. Dan liked blues and country, Steve had a much softer approach with a strong Beatle feel to his songs. I was somewhere in between. By this time, Dennis had dropped out and didn’t participate in making the album. The last piece “Lazy Living” was written by him, which we did as kind of a tribute to him.
Would you share your insight on the albums’ tracks?
The two songs I contributed I wish I could do over. I really didn’t like what happened to “What’s Wrong With That?” Rick thought it ought to have a jug band feel, and we kept adding layers of sound to the point it was hard to hear the song underneath. He was so taken with his idea I didn’t have the heart to fight him on it. But I still wish we had done it simpler.
The other song, “Her Darkness in December” is my favorite of all my songs. The lyrics actually appeared to me in a dream and I was able to scratch them down when I woke up. We played the song at our gigs, sometimes turning it into a long jam ala Grateful Dead. It was a very powerful song when we played it live, but I don’t think we got that across as well in the studio.
Were you inspired by psychoactive substances like LSD at the time of writing the album? What’s your opinion about it?
No, I don’t think we were much under the influence of drugs other than marijuana, but, o yes we smoked pretty regularly. It was pretty deeply embedded in the culture we were in. I wonder sometimes how different our music, and our lives, would have been without it
What’s the story behind Ridon Records?
Ridon was the creation of Rick Keefer. I don’t know where he got the name. Other than putting the name RIDON on the album, we didn’t have any association with RIDON. We did our own pressing, album assembly, distribution, sales.
I suppose if the album had taken off, we would have had a conversation with Rick, but I talked with him several years ago, and he told me he had licensed a Japanese reissue and I told him I had licensed a German reissue, and we both laughed, because even though there is no money to speak of, it’s nice to be part of something we did 50 years ago that’s still finding new fans.
How pleased was the band with the sound of the album? What, if anything, would you like to have been different from the finished product?
We were pleased with the recording til we got the pressings back from LA. Somehow they had pressed them too hot (I found this out later from someone who knows this stuff) so everything was very bright with no bass. We should have sent them back, but over the years I’ve kind of got to liking it, and I think it does contribute to the garage band feel.
How were sales of the album? What about radio airplay? Did the LP make the charts anywhere?
We sold most of the 500 copies. 500 copies! That was the entire production. I don’t think it made anybody’s chart. I don’t remember hearing it on the radio. 
Did the band tour to support the LP?
No. The band did actually break up not long after we finished the album. We stayed in touch, being brothers and friends. Steve was in a few other bands, then got into church music and was very active, til he lost a tussle with pancreatic cancer about 15 years ago. Dan played in a couple of bands later on, then joined a local jazz group for a few years. He died 4 years ago. Dennis and I and Dave McClure, who had replaced Dennis, had a reunion of sorts in Portland a couple of years ago.
What happened after the band stopped? Were you still in touch with other members? Is any member still involved with the music?
Dennis is still writing and performing. He is very active in social justice work. I’m involved in a local band, The Nehalem Valley All Stars, and, yes, we do play some Tweedy Brother songs.
Looking back, what was the highlight of your time in the band? Which songs are you most proud of? Why? Where and when was your most memorable gig? What makes it memorable?
I think my favorite piece is “Danny’s Song.” Dan was the most naturally musical of us all. (Listen to that sweet tenor voice on “Wheels of Fortune”). He did “Danny’s Song” all by himself, added all the parts one at a time, in less than an hour.
The New Tweedy Brothers in 1968.
What are some of your favorite memories from The New Tweedy Bros and the 60s in general?
I liked the time we spent in California. San Francisco was fun place for a band to be, and we felt we were partaking of a special time; those nights at the Avalon and Fillmore, hanging out with Quicksilver and Big Brother, and the Dead we felt like country bumpkins, but I don’t remember anyone giving us a hard time. I think my biggest thrill was hearing Janis Joplin the first time she sang at the Avalon, and knowing that I was witnessing history; nobody had ever sung like that.
We lived in Marin County, it was the fashion. For awhile we were the house band for the Farillon East in Stinson Beach. We stayed in some charming cabins they owned up the hill behind, and played Sunday afternoons on the patio to pay our rent, very sweet.
What were some of your favourite bands?
Quicksilver Messenger Service was one of my favorites. The Dead were fun but we never thought they would amount too much.
We hung out at the Ark in Sausalito and watched the birth and death of Moby Grape, a great group of talent with way too much out of control energy. We considered signing up with their manager Matthew Katz, but didn’t trust him somehow, and decided against it.
The cover artwork is very unique. Legend has it that a very small first pressing of this album came with an original six sided, and six cornered, foil covered jacket. Due not only to its unusual shape, but also its unusual size, these cover versions were very difficult for owners to store, with the two corners protruding at the sides inevitably becoming ‘dog-eared’. The otherwise attractive and innovative idea became very unpopular because of this, with some owners ‘nipping’ the corners off their copies in order for it to fit with standard sized covers. Consequently, Ridon Records cropped the covers on a second pressing, by eliminating the offending corners, and condensing the image to fit on the newly modified shape. Please comment the concept behind it?
Here’s the complete story on the album cover:
I was in charge of producing the cover for the album. After playing around with a number of conventional ideas, I had a brainstorm. A hexagonal cover! That would look like a cube! It seemed so inspired, I never looked back. And despite the storage problems, the cover was a huge success in that the album became very sought after first for its cover and only secondly for the music. Without the attention that the cover attracted, most folks would never have discovered the music.
We were operating on a very short shoestring, and decided that we could only afford to have 1000 copies made, and were doubtful that we could sell even that many. The covers were meant to be as cheap as possible (no color) but then I decided to use silver paper, which turned out to be so expensive we could only afford to pay for half of the 1000 I ordered, so we wound up producing 500 copies of the album, assembling the covers in my livingroom. Several months later I returned to the print shop for the other 500 covers to discover the shop had gone out of business, apparently throwing our covers in the dumpster!
So there were only 500 copies produced in 1968. And that’s all Ridon ever released. There have been various releases since by others, some authorized, some not.
About 20 years ago, Thomas Hartlage from Hamburg approached me with a proposal to reissue the album, both as a CD and a limited edition vinyl. He was determined to make an exact copy of the original cover, which was challenging because a scanner wouldn’t work on the silver paper. I agreed to lend him the original photography, and he was able to recreate the original almost exactly. He sent me a bunch of the covers so that I could finally market some of the original records that I had been lugging around for 30 years. I still have some of these ‘hybrids’, which I have been marketing thru The Craig Moerer Co. in Portland, OR.
Guerssen recently reissued your album. How are you satisfied with their work?
I really like what Guersson has done; they’ve squared the hexagon, but kept the spirit of the original. And the booklet is a very nice touch.
Thank you for taking your time. Last word is yours.
Thank you for asking.
 – Klemen Breznikar
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