Thinking Plague's Mike Johnson on accidentally putting out a collector's album
Thinking Plague is still zany after all these years.
During the 1980s, Denver and Boulder both had thriving experimental-music scenes, with acts like Architects Office, Walls of Genius, Human Head Transplant and the Bruce Odland Big Band, which included Ron Miles and Mark McCoin. But the longest-lasting and most prolific of these is Thinking Plague. Rather than being grounded in noise or jazz, Thinking Plague was inspired by art rock like that of early Genesis, as well as such influential but underappreciated artists as Henry Cow.
Co-founded in 1982 by guitarist Mike Johnson, the act's sole continuous member, and Bob Drake (also of Crank Call Love Affair), Thinking Plague became known internationally for its masterful musicianship, imaginative arrangements and use of sound. The band rarely plays out locally these days, but in advance of an upcoming show at the Walnut Room, we had the chance to speak with the engaging and erudite Johnson about playing with Allen Ginsberg and accidentally putting out a collector's item.
Westword: One of your earliest shows as Thinking Plague was at a kind of Jack Kerouac festival at the Mercury Cafe.
Mike Johnson: Allen Ginsberg was there. He read poems, and also he was working with Mike Chappelle's band in Denver. We played, and people yelled, "Hey, get off the stage!" But after the show, Ginsberg — I walked by him or he came up to me and said, "That was really hip," or "That was really cool; it sounded like Stravinsky with rock drums." Bob and I got tired of the band because we could never sound good, and the drummer wasn't cut out for this kind of music. That version of Thinking Plague never recorded.
You recorded your first proper Thinking Plague album with Jeff Landers.
Jeff got himself a studio down near the stockyards on Packing House Lane. You'd see big rats hanging out everywhere and piles of flesh. Horrible place. In the top floor of this old Armour Star building was a loft apartment, and the basement became the Packing House Studios. We recorded most of our first album there in the middle of the night when he didn't have a paying customer, and we spent most of 1983 doing it.
We had this tape, and we didn't know what to do with it. How do you shop an album out when it's this weird-ass, strange music that's recorded in a pretty odd way, and one of the pieces is Bob bowing a balalaika, and another was a noise collage he had made using telephone recordings and stuff like that?
I talked my oldest brother into loaning us some money to press 500 copies. They were crappy pressings. We got white, blank record covers. Bob and I made templates — one of a bug, one of a mosquito — and we randomly spray-painted both sides of this record and had hand template writing, and all the info was on a printed 8 1/2 x 11 slipped inside. I've seen those on eBay for three hundred bucks. They're collector's items, I guess.
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