Words by Tommy Johnson
As you look within the Olympia music scene of the 90s, you will see the staples that introduced us from the outside to the grunge movement. Dig a little deeper and you land on a collection of riot grrrl acts such as Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney. These bands placed their stamp as being acts that you couldn’t ignore. Their authenticity and penchant for nihilistic, angst-filled lyrics swirled violently within the region with a recklessness destined to happen on a larger scale.
Another band that rose to high notoriety was Longstocking. Songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Tamala Poljak, bassist David Gomez, drummer Sherri Solinger, and guitarist and backing vocalist Woody Stevenson merged power-pop, punk, and hard-revved rock into an urgent, tightly-wound sound that was distinctive and grimy. Longstocking’s tenure within the Olympia scene was short – reminiscent of a comet bursting within the open sky; releasing only one album, Once Upon a Time Called Now – now reissued by Jealous Butcher.
Off Shelf: What can you recall was the moment that inspired your passion for music?
Tamala Poljak: When I was a kid, my parents were both really into music. They had a very sweet LP collection, which somehow consisted only of music made by black folks – aside from Sinatra, so until I was about ten or so I didn’t know white people even made music. I remember being at a friend’s house sometime in the late ’70s, and I noticed an LP sitting against their stereo with Cat Stevens on the cover, and I assumed he was a comedian. Once I learned white people made music too, I asked if I could play guitar for my catholic school choir. I learned six chords in a weekend and then soon after found punk/goth music and left the school choir to begin writing my own – very bad – songs. I started playing in my first band in high school with my good pal David Gomez. He and I played in many bands throughout the years, and he was also the bassist in Longstocking. As a kid, I had a neighbor friend whose older sister, Heidi, had the most incredible music taste. Basically, I just copied her – anything she bought, I bought. I wonder if she knows this? There was a great record store on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood called Vinyl Fetish that sold mostly import LPs. I had a job working at a less-cool record store just so I could make money and spend it all on the weekends at Vinyl Fetish. I could not get enough music. I really believe music saved my life.
OS: You started getting serious about music and finding your footing within the scene. What would you describe the environment at that time as like?
TP: In the early 90’s I was quite fragmented as a human and as a musician. I played in a punk noise band called Oiler, and I guess I sort of found my “guitar sound” in a ton of reverb and chorus, double amps, and vintage pedals in this band. There was a burgeoning punk and noise scene happening in Long Beach during this time, but there weren’t any other “girls” experimenting with guitar noise and sound and gear, at least not that I knew of, and no one was really out as queer or gay at all aside from some members in this band Ethyl Meatplow. Like a lot of punk scenes in the 80s and 90s, it was a very cis-heteronormative and white scene, but it was filled with an aliveness of experimentation and anything-is-possible-ness and we all had a lot to express through music. Simultaneously, as I was immersed in the noise and punk scene, I started playing in a shoegaze band called LOOM with a guy named Jason in Venice, CA, who liked all the same music and poets and artists like me. This band moved me further into the world of making guitars sound not like guitars, but it all left me feeling a bit lost – I was always searching for something more. At 19 years old, I didn’t know it was okay to be into all of it – I thought I had to choose a genre or a sexuality or a gender or a scene, which of course I know now is not the case. Eventually, and much to my surprise, I started writing pop songs sometime around 1994, and these songs are what became the band Longstocking sometime around 1994.
OS: Being in the LA vicinity during the ‘90s, you were surrounded by some of the most tumultuous times in US history. Did you find yourself becoming influenced in terms of songwriting with what was happening?
TP: One thing that stands out to me is a project I did with Exene Cervenka sometime around 1995. She wrote this incredible spoken-word piece about the uni-bomber for the BBC to be performed and recorded at Jabberjaw in Los Angeles. Exene had this cool vintage shop on Sunset Blvd in Silverlake called You’ve Got Bad Taste, where she also had bands play live on Sunday afternoons where we drank beer out of coffee mugs on the sidewalk. One Sunday afternoon Kevin and I ended up playing some songs at Exene’s shop, after which she invited me to write the music to this piece on the uni-bomber she was working on for this BBC thing. This was the first time music intersected with worldly events for me, and I felt moved to tears by it all, honestly. I never saw the footage recorded for the BBC, but the performance is still quite a vivid memory, one I hold close to my heart to this day.
OS: When you moved to Olympia, what was the most glaring difference from your time in Los Angeles? How quickly did you find yourself getting immersed in the scene in Olympia?
TP: In 1993, I was in another short-lived band called Fleabag with an incredible singer/songwriter/performer named Beth Caper – who had been the lead singer in my former band, Oiler – and a couple of other friends who were also awesome and in cool bands in LA at the time. We were based in LA and had some involvement with Kill Rock Stars, so we ended up playing shows with Heavens to Betsy, Bikini Kill, Unwound, Lync, and Team Dresch in the Pacific Northwest. As a result of this small tour, I met and became friends with many of the folks in these bands, and I felt an immediate connection to them, both as people and creatively speaking. I had only felt this kind of connection in LA with maybe one or two other bands/musicians prior. For me, LA was a super lonely place in the 90s and I really did not fit in. In Olympia, I felt a strong sense of community and music and art being made for the sake of making music and art and with a strong sense of DIY ethos behind it. I felt a profound sense of kinship with Olympia’s people and the pace and collective purpose and still do. Although I only knew a small handful of queers during my time in Olympia – this is before the rock opera The Transfused happened, during which time Olympia radically shifted into way more radical queerness – there was somehow a felt-sense of personal and collective freedom. An unusual opportunity to exist less in the gender and/or sexuality binary and to make music on your terms. I learned about community in Olympia and that making art and music isn’t separate from day-to-day life but rather a part of the day-to-day life. I experienced Los Angeles as more of a place centered on accomplishment, success, and achievements, which never really inspired me. In Olympia, I felt a sense of belonging and much more opportunity to live in creative practice and collaboration with others. It was all-around much easier to be myself in Olympia, despite my roots being in LA, and I still consider Olympia my “second home.” That said, I did very much miss the cultural diversity of Los Angeles when I lived in Olympia.
OS: I was always a fan of the riot grrl movement. What were those shows like while performing during that time?
TP: I’ve been asked this question a lot over the years, and I’m never quite sure how to answer it. Even though I was a “female musician” playing in punk bands at the outset of the Riot Grrl movement in 1991 and felt very much connected with both the Olympia and DC punk scenes, I never personally considered myself to be a Riot Grrl because I never felt fully connected to a female identity. Feminist, yes, but “grrl” not so much. This always left me feeling a bit on the outskirts of the movement, similar to the way I felt playing in bands with mostly guys in LA while trying to find other queers and gender non-conforming folks. However, playing live shows with bands like Bikini Kill and Heavens to Betsy and later on Sleater Kinney was nothing short of epic. I remember playing one show in particular with Bikini Kill at the Hong Kong Cafe in, I think 1992 or 1993, and the venue was up a ton of rickety stairs and located on the second floor of a very old building in Chinatown (in Los Angeles). As we played and as Bikini Kill played, it felt as though the floor was literally going to cave in under our feet – people were dancing that hard. This was pure spastic joy! Nothing like it… aside from seeing KARP for the first time. I felt excited to play with these bands, and they were some of the best live show experiences of my life. Recently I had the realization what Riot Grrl was essentially the beginning of the #metoo movement. How remarkable to have lived through all this!
OS: Were there any regrets about moving to the Northwest?
TP: Not at all. I was dating Donna [Dresch] at the time, and during this time I made friends with some of my best friends to this day, so definitely no regrets, quite the contrary. Donna and I had so much fun together, and honestly, it was a pinnacle point in my life in more ways than one. When I moved back to LA, it took me years to admit I lived in LA again, and although I am happy to live here now, it took years for me to adjust. I was homesick for Oly for years. Donna was the first person I was able to fully embrace and celebrate my queerness with. Donna inspires people like this, doesn’t she? I was so closeted and even filled with some degree of internalized homophobia living in LA – perhaps it was being part of Generation X and growing up immersed in the toxicity of body shame and culturally accepted gender norms of LA during this time in history. Still, Donna and this time in Olympia began owning my queerness and thus finding myself. I think a lot of people probably relate to this idea of needing to leave home to find a home inside. I suppose the hardest part of moving to Olympia was that my move essentially ended Longstocking, as it became too difficult for me to live there with the rest of the band living in LA. This was just shortly after the album came out, so we never got to tour much, and I imagine it might be why not many people heard the record the first time around.
OS: How did you and Kevin cross paths?
TP: Kevin and I met in the very early 90’s when I was playing in LOOM. There was this paper called the “Recycler” where people would put out ads for things like “looking for a bass player,” and Kevin responded to our ad. A couple of years after LOOM ended, I had secretly been writing these pop songs, which I was a bit ashamed of [laughs]. They weren’t very punk or weird, and they definitely were nothing like the music I had started to be known for playing in the LA scene at the time, so I felt a bit insecure about them. I just wanted to work with a drummer who was open to exploring these songs with me, and that didn’t have any agenda other than to play music. Kevin was a bassist mostly but also played drums, and he was super open-minded and chill, so we just started playing these songs together, playing some live shows, and recording a bit. We were a two-piece for about a year before David Gomez joined the band. Kevin is an amazing musician. He also builds guitars!
OS: What was the recording process like for the album?
TP: For the recording of Once Upon a Time Called Now, the band’s final line-up consisted of myself, David Gomez on bass, Sherri Solinger on drums, and Woody Stevenson as our second guitarist. This line-up played together for about a year before we made the record. This version of the band played at a whole other level than previous line-ups and soon developed the “sound” for the album. Donna Dresch offered to put our record out on Chainsaw Records, which we were thrilled about, and it all happened pretty quickly and easily. We recorded with a local punk named Bill Sanke, who had a sweet studio in Downtown LA at Spring and 7th. This was before downtown was all fancy. It was full of rats and junkies shooting up in the alley, and there was no AC in the studio. However, the studio was located in a cool art deco building and filled with amazing analog gear. Bill was able to borrow a Neve’s console similar to the one The Cars used on their early albums. I think we spent more time getting decent sounds for all the instruments than actually recording the songs, from what I remember. David and Sherri practiced along with a click track weeks prior to the recording session, so they were able to knock out all bass and drum tracks in a few hours. Woody and I overdubbed all our parts from there. I did a lot of vocal harmonies after the fact, but we were very well-rehearsed, so it went smoothly. We recorded and mixed the entire album in 5 days for a budget of $2000. On the 5th day, Bill and the band stayed up for 24 hours mixing the record, and we played a show that same night with Sleater-Kinney or Built to Spill, I can’t remember exactly but Bill brought us the final mixes to the show and we were ecstatic.
OS: What was impacting you during the writing for Once Upon a Time Called Now?
TP: Ahhh, so much! I was so young! I was exploring a lot of existential themes and coming to terms with the heartache of having grown up going to Catholic school and within a hetero-normative world and conservative family. Like many young adults, I struggled with severe depression and suicidality through a lot of my 20’s, and I was just trying to make sense out of life and myself and others. I started to write songs as a way to explore these things and as offerings to friends. I would say every song on the record is dedicated to someone dear to me.
OS: Having been in a variety of bands since your time in Longstocking, have you seen the rise of other great queercore acts the at followed you?
TP: You know I didn’t follow much queercore music after this phase of my life, to be honest. I think of Team Dresch, The Need, Tracy and the Plastics, Patsy – amazing queer band from LA in the 90s, and of course Phranc and Imperial Teen, all from the 90’s- I just think the best were from this era!
OS: When did Jealous Butcher approach you about remastering Once Upon a Time Called Now?
TP: Donna and Jody from Team Dresch had it in their minds that Rob from Jealous Butcher should re-issue the record. They put Rob and me in touch, and we really hit it off. The whole process was rather seamless. Rob is literally the best record-label person; he is so passionate, professional, funny, and genuine. He really knows what he’s doing! Longstocking and I are eternally grateful to Rob and Jealous Butcher for giving our music a second chance and to Donna and Chainsaw Records for giving us our first chance.
OS: What is the future looking for you?
TP: I am working on a collection of songs right now that I hope to record once COVID is behind us. As has been the case for much of my music career, I am a bit all over the map genre-wise. But these songs seem to be coming out as a mix of all those former genres, so we will see! Aside from music, much to my surprise during this pandemic time, I’ve gotten super into working with clay. I’ve also been tagging up my neighborhood with these phrases that mean something and/or nothing. The creative process and creative life is really important to me. I really can’t wait to work in musical collaboration with my pals again, though. There’s truly nothing like it.