In 1990, California Speedbag released Little Guns on cassette to little fanfare. Although the man behind the music — guitarist, singer and songwriter Gary Lupico — passed away in 2004, family, friends and fans have been collaborating for several years to get the under-appreciated alt-country album reissued and hopefully rediscovered by a new generation of fans.
“There are so many Cleveland connections that helped make this possible,” says Northeast Ohio native Clint Holley III, a vinyl mastering engineer and owner of Well Made Music and the Earnest Tube. Holley spearheaded a monumental effort which included working with California Speedbag bass player Russell Sherman to bring the original multi-track recordings and two previously unreleased songs to Grammy-nominated producer and former Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone to be remixed.
In this interview, Holley, Sherman and Beachland owner Cindy Barber talk about revisiting California Speedbag’s Little Guns 32 years after its initial release.
How did you come to know about California Speedbag?
Holley: Cindy knew my musical tastes and gave me the Little Guns cassette when I worked at the club. Barber: Gary was a writer at Scene and he was in a Cleveland punk band called the Kneecappers. I was managing bands and saw him around at the Plaza and at shows. Eventually, I helped book his band and we got married and divorced, but we always stayed friends. Sherman: Gary and I go back as far as you can go, really. We knew each other since grade school. We were in the Kneecappers and Dr. Bloodmoney together. Speedbag started as a Sunday afternoon get together where we’d play country covers with punk ethos.
How would you characterize the band’s sound?
Holley: They were definitely ahead of the curve and a little bit label defying at the time. Maybe it is cowpunk or alt-country before there really was alt-country. Defying classification is why California Speedbag’s sound wasn’t always understood or appreciated. They were rebels. Sherman: Gary would have said it was rock ‘n’ roll or country. In retrospect, we were doing things that were different and new. Country music shaped us from the start, but we didn’t realize how different from country music we were until we’d play a country bar and wind up in a confrontation. I remember people coming up to as at Speedbag shows and threatening, “If you ever play a George Jones’ song like that again, I am going to kill you.” Barber: Gary wasn’t into “fancy hat new country.” He loved the classic sounds of artists like George Jones and Merle Haggard. He was also really funny and that sense of humor comes through in his lyrics. But the live shows were high-energy. They were a working man’s release — really let loose on a Friday night sort of thing. It was a party.
Why are you excited about this vinyl reissue? Holley: For years, I could only listen to these songs on a worn cassette. I knew it would be great on vinyl. At first I thought maybe I could just transfer the cassette to vinyl, but then Russell found the original multi-track recordings. Not only did they sound good, but there were two songs — "It Hurts So Bad” and “The Truth Ain’t Never Had a Heart” — that didn’t appear on the original release. It’s been a long road to get here, but I am thrilled to finally be able to share this music with others. Barber: I always thought the band was ahead of its time and that its audience should have been bigger. They're part of a really creative period of Cleveland’s history when there was a lot of unique music happening here but no mechanism or cooperation to get product out and into people’s hands. I applaud Clint for making an effort to look back at what was good. Sherman: It’s been a great journey. I am excited to have these songs heard like this. We were lucky to find the original tapes. I had some vague memories of recording the tracks, but I didn’t remember the recording sounded so good.
What’s your favorite Little Guns song?
Holley: Oh man, I have been a fan of this album for a long time. I think tunes like “Let’s Get Drunk and Talk About It,” “Shotglass of Regret,” and “I Can’t Remember Where I Lost My Mind” encapsulate the band’s whole vibe. Barber: Gary was my ex-husband, so I hear a lot of things in the music but “Let’s Get Drunk and Talk About It” basically was the story of his life. Sessions of debate about life’s consequences were something he loved. Sherman: It’s great to have the new tracks. For me “The Truth Ain’t Never Had a Heart” evokes memories of the band living on the near westside of a slightly grittier Cleveland.
What did Gary hope would happen to this music? Barber: He didn’t have expectations that anything would happen. I definitely had more expectations for what was possible than he did. He was happy as long as he could write songs and play. Sherman: We worked every weekend for four to five years trying to get it off the ground. We were able to build a following in Cleveland and even went to New York, but we also built a pile of rejection letters.