Text by Julia Masi, 1986
Introduction by Robert Barry Francos, 2010
Live photos © Robert Barry Francos
Text © FFanzeen
Album images and video from the Internet
The following interview with Salem 66 was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #14, in 1986. It was conducted via telephone by Julia Masi.
The first time I saw Salem 66 was in 1984 at the Inn Square Men’s Bar, in Harvard, on a bill with the Bristols (I believe it may have been the night the place closed). Photographer Rocco Cippilone was a big fan of the band, and took me there. He was right; they were a lot of fun. Quirky and a bit off-beat, they were one of the leaders of a style of indie pop noise that would show up with bands like Christmas, the Pixies, the Breeders, and so many others.
A year later, in 1985, I caught them again at Chet’s Last Stand in Boston, and after that in 1986 opening for Dumptruck at Maxwell’s. I know they broke up during the early ‘90s, and then seem to have simply vanished. That is, at least from my radar. Hopefully the members of Salem 66, especially Judy and Beth, will emerge again on the music scene in some form. – RBF, 2010
[Judy Grunwald, Robert Wilson (Rodriguez), Inn Square Men's Bar, in Harvard, 1984]
[Judy Grunwald, Chet's Last Stand, in Boston, 1985]
[Beth Kaplan, Chet's Last Stand]
[Judy Grunwald and Beth Kaplan, Maxwell's, in Hoboken, 1986]
[Beth Kaplan, Maxwell's]
Salem 66 is like your grandmother’s favorite china: glazed smooth across the surface yet chipped and jagged around the border. Formed in Boston by Beth Kaplan and Judy Grunwald in 1982, they have evolved from artistic abstraction to accessible avant-garde.
By their own admission they’ve always been “raw,” but a delicate tension runs through every song, like a thread that sews together a quilt of melodies. Each member of the band brings unusual to the song.
Beth and Judy come from different musical backgrounds. As a child, Beth fell in love with baroque and studied a variety of instruments, including the harpsichord. A flirtation with rock’n’roll began when she was in the eighth grade and she heard Patti Smith’s Horses for the first time. However, she remained loyal to her harpsichord until she was 16 and taught herself to play bass guitar.
Judy grew up playing the “Pumpkin Waltz” on the accordion. At seven, she decided she wanted to be in a rock’n’roll band. She came by her peculiar choice of instrument when she saw kids at a Sweet-16 party crank out covers of Rolling Stones songs on a snare, guitar, and accordion. She is also a self-taught musician who plays bass and guitar.
Rumor has it that drummer Susan Merriam never sat behind a drum kit until the day she auditioned for the band. Not much is known about guitar player Steve Smith, who joined the band last spring, and was unavailable for comment during this interview. (That’s not true; actually, I lost his phone number!)
The only thing more difficult than trying to describe Salem 66’s music is trying to track them down for an interview. They are on the road as much as is possible for a band that hasn’t quit their day jobs. It took FFanzeen two years to get the following (very expensive, long distance phone) interview with Beth and Judy.
FFanzeen: Okay, let’s start with the boring and stupid question first: what makes Salem 66 different from every other hardworking band on the planet?
Judy Grunwald: I like to think of us as interesting and melodic, yet simple. I think melody is, hopefully, our strong point. I like to sing, but the band isn’t just supporting a vocal melody. There is a lot of other stuff going on, too. We have two guitars and there usually is two melodies going there. It’s not like one is playing the exact same thing as the bass and the other is noodling around on top of it. Beth is not a totally traditional bass player. She’s good and she likes melodies in her playing. And Susan is very solid. She doesn’t rely on snare fills and stuff. It’s all very sympathetic, so it shouldn’t sound like a mess.
FF: I heard your music as melodies layered on top of one another. What’s the process or formula you use to write songs like that?
Judy: I suppose that some bands set out to do something and do it. But most bands just write songs and they’re yours so they seem perfectly normal, and you’re in a band with people because you like each other musically and personally. Whatever comes out of it is hopefully unique and accessible. There is nothing really planned about our stuff. We never really plan to make a certain song a certain way. It just comes out however it comes out.
FF: Do you and Beth write all of the songs?
Judy: Except for the covers. We’re doing a song of Steve’s now. We haven’t played it out. He wrote the music and Beth wrote the vocal part. You’re almost pressed for time sharing a practice space, touring and stuff. Because she and I write the vocal part and the instrumental part, and to bring it in is easy. I come in with a song and she comes in with a song. And then everyone else writes a part for it.
FF: Do you ever sit down together and write?
Judy: That’s what a practice is, when somebody comes in with a song. Beth makes up the harmonies to go with hers. We don’t hole ourselves up in a closet and bicker over every bar. If Beth took one of her songs to another band, or I took one of my songs to another band, it would probably be a completely different song than it is in our band. I consider it that we all write the song together, after the initial song is created.
FF: When you’re writing something, do you make a conscious effort to be either commercial or abstract?
Judy: The goal involved in writing a song is just to express whatever it is that I’ve been turning over in my mind for a while. The only thing I try to make sure of it that it has a good melody and that it’s well put together. I never think about being commercial. “Is this one going to do well?” or that type of thing. “Maybe I’d better do this so it sounds more commercial or accessible.” It’s really a natural process. If it happens to be a good tune, that hits you right off when you hear it on the radio, then that’s good. But that’s not the goal at all.
FF: How has the band evolved over the years?
Judy: I think our evolution has been good. More people have continued to like us. And I think that’s going to continue to happen now that we’ve got Steve. I think the songwriting has gotten better.
Beth Kaplan: The songs used to be pretty weird. There were, like 18 different parts. There’s something bizarre going on in every song. We have this one new song. It’s a really pretty song of Judy’s. It doesn’t have a name yet, but the bass part is really high up, higher than the guitar; it’s way up on the neck. And that’s kind of weird. It’s basically a third melody to the vocal. That’s sort of like a twist. If it were played differently it could be a basic pop song, but that makes it sort of weird. On other things there will be a really strong vocal harmony or just something unexpected. It’s never, like, “Oh well, we’d better do something weird now.” It’s never a conscious effort to be different or unusual. But in this song that I was telling you about, that is what I heard. I heard a really high melody. But it’s really odd for a bass to be playing that. It’s what I heard and what I felt should be played. Generally, they (the songs) just come out and what they are is just a mood and images that I try to express. Generally they are about love and relationships. They’re pretty personal and introspective as opposed to being about the guy I work with or something I read in the paper. My lyrics used to be much more abstract and image-oriented. A lot of people would not be able to figure out what I was talking about. Or just the image would hit home to somebody. And even if they didn’t know, particularly, what the situation I meant was, the image would conjure up something to them. And somehow the images strung together would make sense. But now, my songs are a lot more literal. There are less images and (they’re) more directly related to one topic. I think they hang together better. And it’s sort of pretty obvious what I’m talking about. And that’s something that worries me sometimes. “Am I getting boring? Am I spelling it out too much?” I think people understand what I’m talking about better now, which is a good or bad thing. Because each person should be able to bring something to it themselves. You don’t want to lay it all on the table. You want to leave something open for interpretation because that’s the mystery of the song.
FF: Maybe the greater mystery is how you went from playing baroque to rock’n’roll. How has your childhood training carried over into the way you play bass with Salem 66?
Beth: In baroque music, with the keyboard, there are four voices going. You use two hands and they’re both playing different voices. Each voice is a melody unto itself and each voice happens to be beautiful or strange, or something. Each voice could stand on its own. Or all four voices could intertwine, and that was really neat. That meant that the lowest one, the bass, could be a melody; you play it up higher and it could be the melody. And that had a really big effect on me as a bass player. A lot of standard bass players will learn to play bass by following the chords. I never felt I had to do that. I felt I could do whatever I wanted. I could just play a melody or chord and not do anything you’re supposed to do as a bass player. If it was tasteful enough, it would work.
FF: I know that Judy was a singer with another band before you formed Salem 66, but I heard that you had never sung before. How did you get the nerve – oh, I’m sorry, that sounds rude – how did you get the courage to go out there and sing in front of a crowd?
Beth: I’ve always been real comfortable performing, ever since I was little. Like, I would be horribly nervous before, but once I got up in front of people I’d feel terrific. That had always been the way it was with me. Singing – well, I never had any fear of playing. I don’t know why that is, that’s just the way it is with me. Singing, oh, God! Before I ever sang in public, before the very first Salem 66 show, I would sit up all night going, “I can’t do this! I can’t go up in front of people and sing!” I just thought I was gonna fall apart. Then I just did it and it was okay. And I felt that a lot of people would see me singing and think, “That girl sucks.” Or, “What a lot of nerve!”
FF: I didn’t mean it like that!
Beth: People would hear Judy play guitar and say, “That girl has a lot of balls, but she really sucks,” until we got better. But if you really believe in yourself, if you really believe you have something to say, somehow it gives you the confidence. Nerve is a good word. Balls is another word. It gives you that push to get up there and do it. That is a good half of what makes a good band. A lot of people - probably most people in the world - could write a good song. Or could play an instrument pretty well if they learned how. But what it takes, a good half of it, is the nerve to just push and do it. And to keep doing it, no matter what anybody says; to believe in it. And that’s a natural thing, to have that. If you want to be in a band, you have to get with somebody who has that and ride along, because that’s something very necessary. It’s hard. It’s very hard, in the face of a lot of great singers and musicians to be a real novice at it. Just to try, to get up there and expose yourself and be kind of bad, but hope that people will see through it, and that you’ve got a great idea and you’re really struggling to expresses it. I hope this doesn’t sound like I think I’m really great.
FF: No. It sounds like an intelligent answer from a woman who has just been dissected and put under a microscope. Thanks a lot for the interview.