Originally Appeared in Unit Circle #6

In 1989, I was a DJ on WRCT in Pittsburgh. I was doing my show when another DJ popped his head into the studio and said "Tar is here, do you want to interview them?" I said "Sure!" even though I had never heard of them. I quickly looked through the stack of new records in the studio and found theirs. The other DJs had written fairly positive reviews of it, but I had no idea what the band sounded like. Before I could listen to the record, there were there and I had to think of some questions fast. It was a crappy, lame interview. The worst I've ever done. They played that night in the ballroom of the student center at Carnegie Mellon University. I went and was totally blown away by their power and rich, full sound.

Fast forward six years. I now live in Seattle. I was reading a copy of Magnet magazine when I came across an article on Tar. They were breaking up, and John Mohr, singer and guitarist had moved to Seattle! Knowing that he was a computer guy (he runs the band's web pages), I jumped on my computer and tracked him down. We met in a coffee shop in the Greenlake area of Seattle. All around us students were studying for their exams. I grabbed a cuppa joe and he grabbed a coffee in a cup bigger than a bowling ball and I started firing questions. The first question seemed obvious. Why Seattle?

John: I primarily moved here at the urging of my wife. She was from New Hampshire and I met her when she was living in Chicago. She wanted to move back to the coast and I thought the east coast was probably bad for me getting a job. I thought that Seattle was all right, except for the music. It's all right and it seemed like a nice place. She graduated from grad school in May, it was a three year program, so we knew it was coming up for quite some time and with the demise of the band has been long planned.

Kevin: So the band broke up partially because you knew you were going to coming here?

John: No, the band broke up when it did because it took us so long to do our last record.

Kevin: Yeah, it's been a long time.

John: The Toast tour in Europe in the fall of '93 was our last tour. We had a bad tour. We were like "let's not do this anymore." We didn't know if that meant tour or be a band. So over Christmas of that year we got together and were like "well, are you having fun?" "Are you having fun?" We decided that us having fun and touring didn't go together. We decided to stop touring and we agreed at that point to make one more record. I'd never viewed the band as a real long-term fifteen years down the line thing, but we did want to make a go of trying to live off the band and tour a lot, which we tried to do and it culminated on that tour of Europe where it became obvious that it wasn't working. We weren't getting along and we weren't making any money and it was like "well, touring is not the answer." So it seemed like the purpose of the band became for us to enjoy it. So we said "Ok, we'll do one more record." That was late '93 / '94 and we figured "well, we'll get that done in nine months." And then spring of '95 we'd have one last tour or whatever. The record writing process, being what it was, took a lot longer than we thought. Two weeks before I moved, we were mixing. Our end... the hand was sort of forced when I moved. We had planned for it to all culminate that sping, but it didn't happen.

Kevin: So what are the other guys doing? They're all in a band together?

John: Kind of. They're playing together under the name Hale although every time they're asked about it, Mike says "Well, I don't know if that's going to be the name, but it's been in print three times so maybe it is." So primarily that's Mike and Tom, drummer and Bass player. Mark played with them and they recorded four songs, like a demo kind of thing. Mark was on that but I get the impression that he's not going to be doing that a lot longer. So I don't know. I don't think he's long for that project. Tom's working with Albini in the studio, 2nd engineer kind of thing. Tom was just out in New York playing with Fred Schneider of the B52's. [Kevin laughs] I'm not making this up.

Kevin: That sounds like a weird combination.

John: Albini recorded it and so Steve said "Fred, we can get you to rock, but it's going to take more than one band, it's going to take three bands." So, the Shadowy Men (On A Shadowy Planet) was one of the back up bands and Six Finger Satelite was one of them, and the super group of Tom playing bass and Rick Sims of the Digits, and Russell Simmons from John Spencer (Blues Explosion) on drums, with Fred on vocals.

Kevin: That's weird.

[Kevin and John do Fred Schneider impersonations]

John: So Tom may have a future with Fred Schneider, he may be a B52 before all of this is over. So Tom has been doing that. Mike is playing in another band with Rob Zeracki from Dis called ďEx-ChittleĒ with this guy from Chicago whoís I donít know if heís a savant, but heís sort of out of it musically. So heís just happy to be playing music. I guess itís this guys thing and theyíre sort of his back up band. Mark is a teacher right now. Heís going to school to get a Masterís Degree.

Kevin: Real life intruding again.

John: I just started a job as a Software Operations manager.

Kevin: What does a Software Operations manager do?

John: Iíll let you know in a weekÖ And you just missed our last show.

[John gets his coffee]

John: This is enormous.

Kevin: One of the things I really liked about Tar was itís very thick sound. Thick without being muddy. Itís wasnít sludge, it was very defined, very thick, very rich. Now, how did you do that? I mean, you were a two guitar, bass, drum band. How did you go about doing that?

John: Itís sort of interesting to be talking about this stuff now. Aside from playing our last show, I havenít been involved in anything muscially since the middle of may. Prior to the show I was listening to tapes of our records to refresh my mind on these songs, because we hadnít rehearsed really. So it gave me a new perspective, because I could never listen to our stuff. Why bother? I know it. So it was interesting for me to listen to it because of the songs we picked that we wanted to play at the last show. They were from all different periods of Tar. I thought about why did we sound the way we did. It wasnít anything terribly pre-planned. There was one major change which was when Tom replaced the old bass player. They both had great Bass sounds. Tom was a little bit more thundering, I think. The previous guy was more piercing I think. It really was just the way the instruments interacted as opposed to anything we tried to work on. Early on, like on handsome, I used some little shitty trainer amp and then I switched to a Fender Twin which I used for the rest of the time. When we recorded, we would try different things. There were different amps on different records, somewhat. It was fairly complicated. We used a lot of different guitar amps on the records. Generally, Tomís bass was just Tomís bass.

Kevin: Just direct?

John: Not direct, but the amp he used live was what he recorded with, whereas I had my Fender Twin and I had an old Fender Tweed and I had a Marshal Stack and we recorded these three things together. There would be six guitar tracks of me barely playing guitar. Mark would do the same thing, he had his Hi-Watt and an Orange amp and just try different things. It didnít seem to make much of a difference. We always ended up sounding like what we sound like. Itís kind of funny whenever we would try to reherse without one of the members, it just sucked. It was almost impossible to play the songs because there was so much missing. I donít know what really made it be that way where it was so interdependant. I think thatís why the sound was so thick, because it was a total band sound as opposed to four instruments or whatever.

Kevin: The sound I thought was really distinctive. I mean, among all the other stuff that was going on. A really unique sound.

John: Yeah, I think so too, and thatís why it was always a bummer to get the Big Black thing. We never seemed to get out from under Big Black and Rapeman. With our last record, which got reviewed in Melody Maker or whatever, they said ďJust what we need another Shellac rip-off.Ē They never got it.Ö

John: When we started, getting signed wasnít anything we even thought about. It was a ridiculous concept, you know? Loverboy is the band that gets signed.

Kevin: Now, a lot of the bands were starting, or had just started or started after you are now top 10 bands. I mean like Green Day, Urge Overkill. I mean Urge Overkill is now a huge band.

John: Where Iíve been working, the woman listens to the bonehead metal station, and I hear Therapy? and I remember playing with them. Hereís Helmet, hereís Green Day and I remember playing with them. Corrosion of Conformity is another one.

Kevin: Does that kind of bother you, to think that if you stuck around a little longer it might have worked out better?

John: No, we really didnít have any desire to do the major label thing. We were really bad about it when they came around. We were sort of mean, like ďMCA? Can I get discount on my long distance?Ē I remember being sort of ruthless with this woman from Slash just trying to get her to buy us breakfast. ďSend us some CDs!Ē I got a free Germs CD and I thought that was pretty good. There was a guy from Metal Blade who really wanted us to be on Metal Blade. I mean Tar? Metal Blade? Tar? I got a Gwar Video out of that one. People were getting Frank Sinatra Capitol box sets, I got the Gwar videocassette. Some nice Earache CDs. We never really played that shit up well. Those people are so disgusting.

Kevin: You just didnít have any interest in it?

John: Coreyís (Touch & Go), thatís the best place we can be. The realization to me was ďWhy would I want to sell records to 250,000 people when my music was generally like a reaction to those kind of people?Ē Why would I suddenly five years later want to appeal to them? That to me was kind of self defeating, I suppose. Part of my reason for getting into music, Punk Rock or whatever, was because I didnít like the mainstream stuff.

Kevin: Thatís the irony with all these bands that are now absolutely huge, theyíre all children of Punk. Original Punk, and now theyíre top 40 like anything else.

John: Thatís the thing, itís like Fuck That. Fuck them, I mean still fuck them. You canít find our records in Fred Meyerís. Good, youíre not supposed to.

Kevin: I think that Over and Out is by far the best album since Jackson. I mean I liked everything up to Jackson, Toast was ummm, Clincher was uhhh, but Over and Out is a great record. What happened?

John: The Clincher/Toast thing, that was the sound of a band that was touring all the time. Thereís different opinions in the band as to the ďWhatís your favorite record?Ē kind of thing. Certainly Jacksonís up there. Jackson was written as a band that wasnít touring. Once Jackson came out we started touring a lot. That summer the Teetering single came out. That fall we recorded the Clincher stuff which came out the following spring, and then that summer we recorded Toast and there was that Static single in there too with Jawbox. Within one year we put out four different records. An album, an EP and two different singles, so thatís pretty good. Maybe we were spread too thin, but I donít really have problems with those records. They were written in a shorter period of time. I think that some of our songs are more effective if we let them breathe a little. Definitely that happened on Over and Out. One song on there is 15 minute long. We were all just tickled.

Kevin: Thatís one of the reasons too that I liked Over and Out. On the early stuff, like Jurbo is probably my favorite Tar song, Les Paul Worries also. In the first couple records, you had these longer, more ponderous, even though theyíre harder songs. Then you seemed to abandon that for a while and it seemed to come back on Over and Out.

John: I remember on Toast wanting to write really fast, really short songs. Certainly on the other records, theyíre longer, slower. I donít know, maybe we didnít write good short, fast, songs, at least for you. [laughs]

Kevin: Itís wasnít that they were bad, they just didnít punch me in the head as hard.

John: There wasnít as much variety. Jurbo was a weird song. We didnít have any other songs like Jurbo. Whereas I think on Toast there were a lot of songs that were in the same view. That whole idea behind Roundhouse, like a roundhouse they were all from different perspectives.

Kevin: I thought that worked really well.

John: Well, you know, you sit in a van all the time, you donít get a lot of different perspectives, but at least we didnít write songs about drinking coffee and farting like the Descendants.

Kevin: Hey, that was a good record.

John: Oh, I liked it, but imagine that coming from us.

Kevin: So, what was the songwriting process in the band?

John: The way it generally was was that it was fairly organic, and it was sort of forced, because we were dedicated to rehearsing, but no one was so dedicated that they would, outside of rehearsal, whip up a song, bring it in and say ďHere guys, I got it, our next hit.Ē Weíd sit there and look at each other. Weíd rehearse anywhere from two to four times a week depending on how busy we were, and that was right up to the end. Thatís probably why we were so tight. We were always playing. So we would just sit there, and if someone said ďall Iíve got is one part.Ē Weíd be like, ďOk, lets just play this one part.Ē Maybe thatís all we did one night is just play that one part. Weíd just take the smallest part of the song with everyone having input.

Kevin: So it really was a whole band thing, not just one person writing the songs.

John: Lyrically, I always ended up writing the lyrics, because I had a problem with singing someone elseís lyrics. My own are hard enough. I guess at the end, I had hoped for more interplay with Tom lyrically. We just didnít get around to it.


Kevin: I think Over and Out was a good way to end, because I think itís a really strong record. Itís better to end that way then to fade out with decreasing quality records.

John: I thought that Toast would be a good record to end with, you know ďToast.Ē Iím glad we did it (Over and Out). Itís difficult writing songs. When you get back from touring after a record, youíre sick of the songs. So you have to sit there in rehearsal with people that youíre not thrilled with to be around, and you have nothing to play and you desperately want to play new songs. Then six weeks later, you have three or four new songs, hopefully. So if you go dry, you can play those new songs.

Kevin: It seemed with some of the songs, you experimented with dissonance. Where it seemed like you would be playing off each other and it sounded wrong and yet it sounded right, like Tellerman from Jackson. Thatís not the only place you guys did it.

John: No, we did that a lot. It would be like, ďwell why donít I play this not for five minutes and see what you can come up with around it.Ē Itís sort of like Sitars have the same sort of thing, where thereís a drone-y note. And you stick these two notes together, it sounds bad. If you play the one bad note for a really long time, the other note sort of goes up and down in pitch, it sounds right enough so that it makes sense. Trying for overtones and stuff.


Kevin: What do you think of guitar solos?

John: Not interested. I dislike them, I always have.

Kevin: Thatís the Chicago sound.

John: No guitar solos?

Kevin: Naked Raygun, no guitar solos. The Effigies, no guitar solos. And no one Iíve ever played with, on the West coast, understands that. No guitar solos.

John: Theyíre not important.

Kevin: Yeah, well I knew you were of a like mind about that. I knew I would get an answer I liked if I asked you that question.

John: Itís an ego thing.

Kevin: thatís cool. So you have two more songs coming out, are they both on Skin Graft?

John: Thereís the AC/DC cover, and the other song is for the Touch and Go anniversary record, which was the 10th anniversary, now I think itís heading for the 14th, so we have a song on that.

Kevin: So was Touch and Go good to you?

John: yeah, no complaints.

Kevin: good, maybe now theyíll service The Unit Circle too if I send them a copy of this.

Unit Circle Music