Get Smart! | Interview | “The DIY spirit is what’s behind our name”
Get Smart! is a three-piece post-punk band formed in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1980 consisting of Marcus Koch, Lisa Wertman Crowe and Frank Loose.
The band released two studio albums along with some singles and EPs over a 10-year span. Get Smart! have reunited and are issuing a brand-new vinyl record called ‘Oh Yeah No’, featuring six songs recorded in 1987 but never released.
In 1987, the Lawrence, KS-based trio recorded six songs for their third album, but Loose soon left the band and those beautifully melodic, urgently rhythmic, and vividly passionate dance punk tracks were shelved. The original line-up reformed at the start of 2020, and released the recordings as ‘Oh Yeah No’, named after its volatile title track. Recorded at the time by the English sound engineer Iain Burgess (Naked Raygun, The Effigies) at the Chicago Recording Company, recordings have been given final mixes by another studio legend, Steve Albini.
“We decided that we preferred the raw and jagged sound and feel of a basic guitar, bass and drums format”
Your band started in 1980. Were you originally a trio?
Frank Loose: Yes, we were originally a trio, and that lineup worked really well, especially when traveling across the US.
Lisa Wertman Crowe: Yes. A power trio!
Marcus Koch: Although we practiced once with a keyboardist early on, we decided that we preferred the raw and jagged sound and feel of a basic guitar, bass and drums format. It allows space in the musical structure and it gave us a platform to exhibit our vocals/harmonies. Initially, although not clearly articulated, we were unified in what we wanted to sound like and I remember distinctly not wanting a blanket sound of instrumentation.
What inspired Get Smart! back in those days? What were some of the most important influences to start playing post-punk music?
Frank: It was really a reaction to the mainstream music at the time. Most music was being spoon-fed through the radio by big corporations. There was a tiny college radio station in Lawrence, Kansas that was playing alternatives to that. The music had a lot more energy and authenticity. We thought we could make our own music, so we did.
Lisa: Prog rock and hair bands on the commercial airwaves were great motivators to do something different. KJHK, the University of Kansas student radio station, was playing all the exciting new bands coming out the east coast as well as England. And the New Music Express was a great way to keep tabs on the exciting punk and new wave music scenes. DIY music was emerging and we jumped on it.
Marcus: A real and sustained rejection of commercial mainstream music and a contempt for fake celebrity personas. We thought that most corporate rock n’ roll was laughable. The post-punk music, to which we gravitated, seemed genuine and relied less on contrived formulae and more on spontaneity and creativity.
Was there a certain scene for this kind of music back then in Lawrence, Kansas or were you the only one playing alternative music?
Frank: There was a cohort of bands that started out in Lawrence, all about the same time. Some only played one or two shows, others lasted long enough to get a bit of a following. The scene was really in one club, Off the Wall Hall. That’s where a lot of local bands were able to play, and traveling punk bands could play there as well.
Lisa: There was an amazing music scene! Everyone and anyone playing alternative music came through Lawrence, Kansas in the late 70s/early 80s. KJHK nurtured and supported our music culture, along with venues like Off The Wall Hall and the Lawrence Opera House, and many dedicated individuals. While attending college I got to see Iggy Pop, The Stranglers, The Boomtown Rats, The Teardrop Explodes, REM, The Go-Gos, and tons more. I also fondly remember reserving a copy of the New Musical Express at our wonderful local magazine/bookstore Town Crier and pouring over every article about the incredible scene in London. I remember buying records based on their reviews and listening to our local KJHK deejays and The Peel Sessions that got piped in from BBC’s Radio 1. Peel even played one of our songs once.
Marcus: The “scene” was authentic and harmonious. There were numerous garage bands emerging and we supported each other in a way that led to inclusiveness and the development of a musical hotbed for local bands and a destination location for traveling bands. Although most derived influence from others, many of the bands were making a concerted effort to be unique and it was quite evident that the majority of the participants embraced and supported the effort. I cannot say enough about how KJHK was a significant catalyst in promoting alternative music and how the owners of Off the Wall Hall made their venue a second home for so many people wanting to be a part of what was happening.
Tell us more about The Embarrassment, and The Mortal Micronotz… two bands from your town.
Frank: Both bands were really good friends of ours and we all helped support each other. The Embos lived in Wichita, so they weren’t able to hang out socially as much. The Micronotz were all in high school, so unless they were playing, it was hard for them to hang out in the bars. That said, we played quite a few shows with both bands.
Lisa: They were our friends and cohorts on the Kansas scene. The Embarrassment were from Wichita and the Mortal Micronotz from Lawrence. We supported each other and played shows together.
Marcus: They are two of my favorite bands from the era. I always looked forward to seeing them play live and thoroughly enjoyed sharing the stage with them; and great guys, too! They both made a significant impact in their own way. I became addicted to The Embarrassment’s infectious forward driving sound and The Micronotz’s relentless and brutally honest force.
Your first record was released in 1981. It was a flexi disc released with “Talk Talk” magazine.
Frank: Bill Rich was the publisher and editor of Talk Talk fanzine and he liked the idea of including something extra that would give readers a chance to hear the music described in the publication. The first release was from a band called Abuse. He asked us if we wanted to be the second release. A new recording studio had just opened in town that could record to 8-track, so we went in there and cut two songs, ‘Ankle Deep in Mud’ and ‘Numbers and Colours’. It didn’t take long for the manufacturing at all, which was really different than waiting for traditional vinyl. It was a solid first effort and really helped introduce us to a wider audience.
Lisa: Bill Rich was the founder and editor of Talk Talk magazine. He did so much to support local music. He approached us to record a flexi disc that was released with an issue of the magazine. We recorded it at Ramona Studios in downtown Lawrence. We were thrilled as it was our very first record release!
Marcus: It was a great initial opportunity to get our music recorded and released. And the co-op between independent bands and a fanzine was further solidified. Personally, I loved the idea of our first record being an Eva-Tone flexi-disc. My dad was a band director his entire career and as a kid, I enjoyed playing the Eva-Tone records that would come in his professional magazines. Plus, I reveled in getting a Monkees or Archies record off the back of a cereal box (‘Last Train to Clarksville’ and ‘Sugar, Sugar’!)
“The DIY spirit is what’s behind our name”
The band had a DIY spirit and self-released 4-track EP called ‘Words Move’.
Frank: Yeah, why have a band if you’re not going to write your own music, record it, and release it, right? The DIY spirit is what’s behind our name, Get Smart! Do it yourself, and don’t just listen to what’s fed to you by the giant music corporations. ‘Words Move’ came about through the same local recording studio and we had enough money to record four tracks. Our songs tend to be pretty short, so we could fit two onto each side of a 7” record. Perfect!
Lisa: At that time, alternative bands really had to self-release their music, because punk and new wave had not yet hit the deep pockets of corporate rock. It was the only way to get our music out there. And in some ways, it was a badge of authenticity.
Marcus: No one else was going to readily fund your commencement efforts. At the time, I do not remember any loftier goals but to play live and put out a record. Eating and paying rent was way down on my list of priorities. I see the ‘Words Move’ record as a time capsule. In a sense, it was who we were: innocent but provocative, inexperienced but determined, awkward but not timid, confident but not arrogant.
What about Fresh Sounds Records, called ‘Fresh Sounds From Middle America (vol 1)’?
Frank: ‘Fresh Sounds’ was again Bill Rich wanting to expand more into publishing music. Cassette only releases were really popular and a lot cheaper than vinyl records to produce. We cut five songs at the same local studio for the release, which also included The Embarrassment, The Micronotz, and a Kansas City band, The Yard Apes. Bill was pretty good at getting the cassettes out and reviewed, so it helped us reach even more people. So far, these are the only back catalog recordings we haven’t released to digital/streaming. The 40th anniversary of the ‘Fresh Sound’ release is later this year so maybe we’ll put those songs out!
Lisa: This was from Bill Rich, also. The first in a very cool cassette tape (!) series featuring an eclectic mix of midwestern bands, many that we had known and played with.
Marcus: A big thank you to Bill Rich and his commitment to expanding “local” alternative music. He invested in bands doing their thing and brought it to an eager audience with meager financial return. Wow! What a concept! People like that were/are a rare entity and much appreciated by those that do not have the wherewithal or connections to successfully accomplish it on their own. Those recordings and the distribution of them was a very important step in our progression.
What was the main reason to relocate to Chicago? How did you enjoy the scene there?
Frank: We really wanted to play to more people and in more cities. Lawrence, Kansas is really far away from everything, so even though we all loved Lawrence and it was where we began, we decided it was time to leave. We all met at college there, so none of us were originally from there, so the question was basically, “Where do we move to?” After considering a lot of options, we thought Chicago. It wasn’t the center of the music industry, like New York or L.A., and there’s a certain honesty or truthfulness about the U.S. midwest that we found appealing. We could have day jobs and still pursue music too.
The scene in Chicago was pretty welcoming, which I don’t think would have been the case in other cities. There we met Iain Burgess, who remixed the ‘Action Reaction’ LP and recorded and engineered ‘Swimming With Sharks’. He was instrumental in helping us capture our live sound, which we felt hadn’t been captured in previous recordings. For a three-piece band, we pack a lot of punch, but also include harmonies and tunefulness more associated with pop music. Chicago was like a much bigger version of Lawrence. We met a lot of bands we liked and helped with shows. Eleventh Dream Day, Material Issue, Green, and others all played with us at shows around Chicago.
Lisa: We were looking to expand to a larger market as we felt we had done all we could in a smaller town. It was a good experience to have new places to play, and Chicago was a good home base for all our touring. We also made a lot of friends in other Chicago bands. And we had the advantage of meeting Iain Burgess, who was the perfect recording engineer for us.
Marcus: I often wonder how things would have ended up had we stayed in Lawrence. But being in a bigger hub seemed to offer the most opportunities. Having grown up in Chicago, it was “home” to me. Chicago was more competitive but still cohesive. There were bigger audiences and more contacts. It made sense at the time. No “regrets”, right?
How did you get in touch with Colin Camerer of Fever Records?
Frank: I think we met Colin through Iain Burgess because he was already recording and engineering other Fever Records bands like The Effigies. He liked our sound, and we already had recorded ‘Action Reaction’ and were looking for a label to release it.
Lisa: I don’t recall.
Marcus: Through Iain Burgess and other Chicago bands with whom Fever Records had been associated. Colin’s partner, Cole Kendall, was working the Chicago alternative music scene for the record company and when we got to know him, we found common ground with what Fever was wanting to accomplish.
What’s some of the strongest memories from recording ‘Action Reaction’ in 1984?
Frank: Those songs were recorded in late 1982 at the same studio in Oklahoma City that our friends The Embarrassment used. However, we weren’t happy with the initial mix at all. We felt it didn’t really capture how we sounded. Fortunately we met Iain Burgess and he was able to make the mix a lot more punchy. It was a really painful process to get the vinyl released so more than 18 months after it was recorded it was finally released.
Lisa: I remember it being a tough process as it was our first full-length recording, and it was a lot of work and we were all pretty new to it. But to this day, after Iain Burgess’s remix, I still think it captures our energy and passion very well, and the songs still hold up.
Marcus: I remember really enjoying the experience of recording to 24-track for the first time. A considerable amount of work went into the recording process compared to earlier endeavors. Artistically, we were able to incorporate the multi-tracking of guitar parts and vocal layering. Throughout the process, I heard our songs become more dimensional and I then carried some of that development over into our live performances. A huge thank you to Taylor Ross for producing the album! We could not have done it without him.
How would you compare it to ‘Swimming with Sharks’ and what were the circumstances behind recording your second LP?
Frank: We started with Iain Burgess at the controls for ‘Swimming With Sharks’. It was also recorded at Chicago Recording Company, which was miles ahead of where the Oklahoma City studio was. The result was a lot more punch, but we were also becoming better songwriters, not just in crafting the songs but in what we were writing about. The music was edgy and jagged, and the lyrics were a lot more personal observations about our own lives. We weren’t trying to preach to anyone about how they should think or feel, we were describing how we were feeling. Each of us were contributing lyrics and musical ideas to make it a whole. There aren’t a lot of bands that trade off lead vocals, and even fewer that do it between male and female.
Lisa: ‘The Sharks’ experience was very different in that the songs were more developed, we had a fantastic engineer who really “got” us, and we utilized a state-of-the-art recording facility.
Marcus: I like ‘Swimming with Sharks’ more than ‘Action Reaction’ for several reasons. Iain Burgess was an expert engineer and made us work to get good studio performances. I took on a more active role in the production of this record and worked with Iain to gain a more powerful sound that was much more like our live sound but with the benefits of the studio technology. The songwriting and musicianship had also improved. I believe that we effectively established our sound at that time and during that recording project.
There were some lineup changes at the time?
Frank: Our lineup was really consistent until Frank left the band in 1987, so that’s 6-1/2 years or so of being together through thick and thin. Probably pretty good by rock and roll standards. Bob Lara was added as an additional guitarist, and a number of different drummers came and went, including Rick Menck (Matthew Sweet, Velvet Crush).
Lisa: Frank left in 1987, and Bob Lara joined us on lead guitar, along with a few different drummers.
Marcus: We added Bob Lara on lead guitar in an attempt to increase our song writing capabilities. Naturally, it began to change our sound. There were some good things that came from that addition. Then Frank left and we were without a drummer for a while until Ric Menck joined the band for a short time. Jay Sebastian (a.k.a. Redd Klaats) was the third and last drummer and during that time, the band began to head into a very different musical direction. When we parted company with Jay, we performed as an acoustic trio for a while until I saw my exit in front of me. I had spent my 20’s playing in Get Smart! I made a figurative and literal move.
What occupied your life after Get Smart!?
Frank: I traded banging drums for banging nails, renovating old houses as a hobby. Worked as a graphic designer, art director, and marketer. Raised two sons. It’s been a full and happy life!
Lisa: I played in many bands in different musical genres, from old time country to rockabilly, alternative, kid’s rock, and now in a couple of tribute bands, Buzzcocks and Gang of Four. I also performed at many coffeehouses singing my own songs and covers with acoustic guitar and bass. Along the way, I got married and had two wonderful sons, and have had a long career in publishing. I also dabble in German Wheel Gymnastics, being coached by our younger son, who is a world-class Wheel athlete.
Marcus: I moved back to Kansas and pursued my musical roots and have played in a honky-tonk band in one form or another for nearly thirty years. I have been a graphic designer and screen printer, was a law enforcement officer for twenty three years including twelve years as a Chief of Police and recently retired. Now, I have a CDL and drive a semi-truck. “I’m lookin’ at the world through a windshield!” And what’s a guy with fifteen guitars going to do but play music! My son is a superb bass player, singer and songwriter and has made music a priority in his life. It is exciting to see him develop and forge his own path.
This brings us to your latest release, ‘Oh Yeah No’. Those songs were ready for your third album. What happened?
Frank: We went into Chicago Recording Company with Iain once again to try to capture even more of that essential live energy. By that time we had played around 300 shows and we knew what we sounded like and wanted to finally get that distilled down to it’s core. We had no money and no record label so all the songs were recorded in the middle of the night and we paid Iain for his time and the tape. The thought was to share those six songs with a label and get a deal with a company that knew how to market us. But we were also frayed from touring so much and just plain worn out. That exhaustion contributed to Frank leaving the band. The songs should have been released way back then, but instead they ended up sitting on the shelf for 33 years! We’re really thrilled they were finally released.
Lisa: We had the songs recorded, and were hoping to get a deal so we could record more for a full-length album, but then Frank left the band and things just never gelled enough to continue.
Marcus: Over the years, since we disbanded, I always maintained that these songs and recordings were strong and should be released in some form or another. But because we were separated and life took us in different directions, it just did not happen and they remained in my house on the 24-track tape in a box. With the decision to reunite for at least one show, the decision to do final mixes and release these songs came to fruition. We contacted sound engineer Steve Albini in Chicago. He was familiar with our music from the time we were in Chicago and had worked with the late Iain Burgess. We thought that by working with Steve, we would achieve the bold and powerful sound that we were wanting while maintaining the spirit that Iain had initially incorporated. The result was the six-song album entitled ‘Oh Yeah No’. We are very pleased with it and I believe that it showcases the band from a time when we were at our best – songwriting and performing.
The original lineup reformed in 2020. How do you feel being back together?
Frank: I think we’re all having a lot of fun. We’ll be playing live later this fall, and then we’ll start making plans for 2022!
Lisa: Thrilled! In some ways, it’s like no time has passed, and in other ways, it’s really satisfying to see how each of us has progressed both musically and personally. For me, it’s like a family reunion, only better.
Marcus: I had suggested the idea of a reunion show to the others a couple of times over the years. Distance, obligations and other decisions made it improbable. Two winters ago, I was at the Bottleneck (originally Off the Wall Hall), watching my son performing in the same venue where Get Smart! had debuted in 1980. I took a photo of his band on stage and sent it to Lisa with the proposal, “Reunion?”. She replied, “I’m in! Now, it’s just up to Frank.”. I contacted him and to my delight, he said he would do it. The reunion concept quickly incorporated the release of the vaulted recordings and the posting of the vast archive of live recordings and posters and photographs and memorabilia from the band’s career. What an incredible regeneration of interest it has created! Playing our music again, after all of these years, has been exceptionally rewarding and I cannot wait to perform live this fall/winter. I guess it never was evident to me at the time but we were pretty good! Our music has stood the test of time and is still relevant today. Mission almost accomplished!
I would love it if you can share some further words about how the material came together and what was the recording process like?
Frank: The lyrics were getting even more introspective and less obvious. Musically we were starting to craft our strongest song structures. Most of the songs were put together in practices with an idea from one and then the others contributed collaboratively. Different parts of the title song are literally written by each of us.
Lisa: Recording was pretty fast and frenetic. We put our hearts and souls into this record, and were at the peak of our skills.
Your finest moment in music?
Frank: Just one moment? Probably playing at CBGBs on the same bill as Alex Chilton and The Replacements. I listen to the cassette made off the board of that show and we were really tight and in control, but also so close to the edge of everything falling apart.
Lisa: As a fan, some of my personal favorite shows were the few we did opening up for X shows on one of their tours that took them to the Blue Note in Columbia, Missouri. They were my musical idols so it was amazing. CBGBs was truly incredible, though. I couldn’t believe we were actually onstage at that legendary place. Who knows, our finest moments may be yet to come!
Marcus: Putting a band together with not much more than an intense desire to be original and leave an impact; motivating and inspiring others; while all the while, navigating the road in front of us without a map and driving forward like at night without headlights!
What do you want people to take away from the album?
Frank: To find a song that speaks to them. Something that they would love to hear in a playlist along with other bands they enjoy. To my ear the songs still feel fresh because they were never released, but they don’t sound out of date.
Lisa: I’d like people to notice the musical progression and song development from our flexi disc all the way to these recordings. And I hope that they feel moved and want to dance!
Marcus: Music is a testament to human existence. Whether you are extremely accomplished or just play for enjoyment, leave an imprint that only you can. And it is in the simplest initiative that something can result in a life-long reward. Get Smart!
Headline photo: Get Smart! in 1986 | Photo by Mike Greenlees