If the holy trinity of early ’90s Seattle indie rock was Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and Nirvana, Cincinnati’s equivalent was Afghan Whigs, Ass Ponys, and Throneberry. The youngest of those three bands, and the only one that never had its moment on a major label, Throneberry broke out nationally with Sangria (Alias Records) in 1994, followed by Trot Out the Encores in 1996 and Squinting Before the Dazzle in 1998. Along the way they earned acclaim in many magazines that no longer exist (from Details to the NME) and got to work with such luminaries as producer Joe Chiccarelli (Frank Zappa, the White Stripes, the Strokes) and mixer Niko Bolas (Neil Young).
Frontman Jason Arbenz and bassist Paul Cavins then went on to play in Goose for many years, while singer/guitarist Sam Womelsdorf remains in Culture Queer (he was also one of several local luminaries in last year’s Ensemble Theater production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch). Now, like the Whigs and Ass Ponys, Throneberry has reunited, if only for one show. They’ll be at the Woodward Theater on Friday, January 25, along with Yellow Springs’ Speaking Suns and another reunited Cincinnati band, Ruby Vileos. Tickets are a mere $10 in advance and $12 at the door—1994 prices for sure.
The easy first question: why now?
Jason Arbenz: Well, 25 is a nice number. Last year I’d noticed, hey, Sangria‘s turning 24. Maybe next year would be a good time to do this if we’re ever going to do it. Have some fun, get our band a little attention that we haven’t had in a long time.
Sam Womelsdorf: It definitely seems like for whatever reason, it’s a good time for
retrospection. Like, that Brainiac movie (Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero, about the beloved Dayton band) is coming out. I saw you at that Ass Ponys reunion. Some other contemporaries of ours, Middlemarch and Schwa, just released remastered versions of their records.
Arbenz: It just seemed like there were a bunch of bands that weren’t necessarily a lot more huge than we were cashing their ticket one more time, so why not us? We missed the YouTube era, so there’s a preciously small footprint that we left behind. Let’s go play a show when everybody has a cell phone in their hand!
So what’s been the weirdest thing about getting back in a room together?
Arbenz: I think the weirdest thing is how easy it is. Our first half an hour of rehearsal sounded really clunky, I think there was a little bit of nerves, but once we got, like, tuned up better we started to hit a stride. I feel like I sing just the same as I used to, and everybody can do their things.
Womelsdorf: It’s been interesting, my side on the guitar. Jason was pretty gracious about letting me do a counter-melody all the time, which is a lot of fun to play. It’s like, “okay, I’m busy on every song, start to finish.” I don’t know if it’s necessarily better for the listener, but that’s been amazing.
Arbenz: We find ourselves kind of fine-tuning the way we used to fine-tune, although not as much, because it’s only one show. So we don’t need to bust [drummer Steve] McCabe’s balls if he speeds up or slows down a little bit. Which is the only way to please both Paul and I. Drumming for us was a tough thing because I always want to go a little faster and Paul always wants to go a little slower.
Steve has been a great force for making this happen—he travelled from Savannah, Georgia every weekend that we’ve rehearsed—three different times. We kind of unceremoniously bounced him out of our group after recording Trot Out the Encores, so I’m really happy he doesn’t show any signs of hurt feelings.
I’m sure you got asked this a lot back in the day. Why did you name yourselves after Marvelous Marv Throneberry, a New York Met, instead of say, Concepción, or Seaver?
Arbenz: Honestly, I remember the day. I was with [Afghan Whigs frontman] Greg Dulli. We were at this gym called the Friars Club in Clifton. Greg and I are sports fans, and we were just kinda jamming on baseball player names. I remember mentioning Sixto Lezcano, we’re kind of going through all of these obscure guys, and then, “Throneberry.” I don’t remember a lot of resistance. Y’know, something gets a little bit of momentum, you kind of go around the room, people nod, and it’s like all right: Throneberry. “Fruit of kings.”
Though we got called “The Thornberries” an awful lot.
Greg also produced Sangria. Is there a story there or is it just that you guys had already known each other forever?
Arbenz: It started with the song “Touched.” He heard us play it at, I’m pretty sure it was Sudsy Malone’s, he’d been kind of in and out of town a lot, so he hadn’t heard it before, and he was like, “Wow, that’s it. That’s a good one. That’s your ticket right there.” He said he’d like to produce a version of it and then he predicted that if we sent that around, it would get us signed.
And he was kinda right. We got these cassettes together thinking maybe we can get somebody to just put out a seven-inch for us, we weren’t even thinking grand plans, but they went out on a Saturday, and Tuesday night, I got home from work to a message to call Alias Records. The guy said, “It’s the best unsolicited submission we’ve ever had. The woman who owns the label [Delight Jenkins] I took her in my car, we listened to it, and we want to know when you’re playing.” And they came out and saw our next show in Cincinnati.
So how did it end?
Arbenz: We kinda ground to a halt. Whatever momentum that we accumulated during Sangria had dissipated by the time we got to record number three (1998’s Squinting Before the Dazzle). We had finished it in November of 1996, and then we waited 18 months, during which time we lost our drummer (McCabe’s replacement Michael Horrigan, who wound up in the Afghan Whigs). We were trying to get major label distribution and they didn’t really love it at first. They wanted to hear more songs. We took the time to write more songs. None of those seemed great. We ended up remixing a couple.
There was a lot of—Sam has a term, “schmickin’ and mickin,” named after his old cat, “Schickmick.” We did a lot of schickin’ and mickin’ before that record came out and then it wasn’t received that great. The band was not the smooth fun sailing that it had been. There was a certain point when Sam called me up and said, “Yeah, I think it might be time.” And he was right.
Womelsdorf: It didn’t really dawn on us that our style of music could go out of favor. The indie-rock golden era just came to a close unceremoniously for us.
Arbenz: If you read what people wrote about us, a lot of times they focused on how we didn’t really seem part of the moment. We were sort of flying in the face of the really simple kind of Nirvana rock, or Pixies rock. So it didn’t feel to me like we’d be that susceptible to the times changing. But we’d never really landed a song on the radio, or formed an easy style for people to digest. We just wanted to make the greatest songs we could make—even if they were all kind of too long.
It’s tougher for bands today. Like, even as successful as Wussy has been, they have jobs and lives to tour around. You can’t be full-time the way indie rock bands were in the ’90s.
Womelsdorf: I think that’s also a time of life thing. I made $8,000 one year of Throneberry. That was like, what I put on my taxes. We were only in a band [with no day job] by having almost no money.
Arbenz: Alias was serious about tour support. We wouldn’t have done some of the fun and fancy things we did, like trips to Europe, without that. Our final unrecouped total [the amount of royalties the band technically owes the label if their record sales are less than their expenses] was a pretty big number. So you’ve got to kind of look at it as, they paid for some of the fun we had. We got to play in the game.