AN INTERVIEW WITH JOE NOLTE (vocals / guitar) FROM THE LAST
WW: You guys originally formed in 1976. Can you give a brief description of how that came about?
THE LAST: No…
Sorry – couldn’t resist! Truthfully, “brief” is a bit of a challenge, but let me try: I’d gotten Vitus Matare into my high school band in late 1972, and he’d brought bassist Dave Harbison in a few months later. We played mostly originals – very messed up originals at that, as we never kept the same time signature or key throughout any song if we could help it. Then the game would be to see how long we could play at the dance or party before being tossed on our ears. However, I was at that early age in the process of rediscovering the joys of mid-sixties punk, and by mid ’73 we were already doing the Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard” among others.
That band had fallen apart between ’74 and ’75, but needless to say I was pretty excited in late 1975 to learn that there was a scene emerging in New York apparently dedicated to the same principles that made all those mid-sixties punk records so impossibly cool. And they were even calling it “Punk”…
Vitus had left the country, but Dave was willing to assist me in my new obsession, and by the summer of 1976 we had a prototype Punk band, which by October had become The Last.
Since we were practicing in my Mom’s garage in Hermosa Beach, my brothers David and Mike would hang out, and at that first October practice Mike and I even tried singing together. It worked, and Mike was in. David was just learning guitar, but he was inspired to go start his own band with his best friend, a surfing buddy named Frank Navetta. They eventually called it the Descendents.
Vitus returned to California, sat in with us, and eventually joined for real by mid 1977. This lineup of Mike, Vitus, Dave Harbison and drummer Jack Reynolds is the one that recorded our first single in late 1977: “She Don’t Know Why I’m Here”.
And this is probably the briefest I have ever been on the subject.
WW: I read that Bill Stevenson (drums…All / Descendents / Flag / Black Flag) and Karl Alvarez (bass…Descendents / All) played on The Last’s most recent record, Danger, in addition to your brother, Mike Nolte (vocals / keyboards). How did you guys get together? I imagine you’re longtime friends?
THE LAST: Yeah, we’ve all known each other for decades, and Bill and I have always wanted to do something together.
One day I just called him – and we did it.
WW: Who / what first inspired you to pursue a career in music?
THE LAST: Beatles.
WW: You guys were back in LA in the early heyday of punk rock. What do you miss about those days? What, if anything, are you glad has changed?
THE LAST: We were back in LA before there was a heyday! The main thing I’m glad that has changed is that back then there was not a single club that would allow unsigned original bands in the door. It was a closed circuit – you couldn’t get in unless you were already in, and if you weren’t already in you couldn’t – well, you get the idea – it was a Kafka-esque Catch 22, and no matter what happens, in the wake of the Punk revolution and the efforts of all us ancient types, it will never be that bad again.
What I miss are the people, including old friends and conspirators Dave Harbison, Jack Reynolds, Frank Navetta, Brendan Mullen, Paula Pierce, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, etc – all gone now.
WW: You guys have taken a couple of lengthy hiatuses over the almost 40 year lifespan of The Last…what keeps prompting you to get back together and giving it a shot?
THE LAST: Sheer stubborn lunacy. I never learn.
WW: You guys released your 7th studio album, Danger,on Austin indie record label, End Sounds in 2013. How did you hook up with them and how was it received?
THE LAST: Bill knew Jonathan from End Sounds, and had played a couple of our tracks for him. Jonathan had an immediate and apparently unmatched appreciation for what we were doing, so it was quickly an inevitability that we hook up. As far as reception, it is premature to speculate at this point.
WW: Danger was your first album in 17 years. How difficult was getting back in the swing of things…as far as both writing and recording are concerned?
THE LAST: Writing happens when it happens – some of the songs came quickly, others took a while, and some others remain unfinished. I had actually just finished writing most of them when I hit Bill and Karl up with the idea of hooking up for a record or two, so the songs actually preceded the band.
WW: You guys recently played the Punk Rock Bowling Festival in Las Vegas. How was that? Any plans for a US tour on the horizon? Do you have any upcoming shows in Austin?
THE LAST: Vegas was fun, although, given the logistics of being in a band with a very busy rhythm section, we don’t get a lot of time to get much practice time in as a band. It is something of a miracle we are able to do it at all.
No definite plans at all right at this moment, but many ideas, and we will certainly return to Austin at some point.
WW: Amongst your band members there are numerous side projects. Can you tell us about some of those?
THE LAST: Well, the little side projects are what make tour plans a bit difficult to arrange. Bill is now in the world of his dreams, from a South Bay Punk perspective – he now drums with The Last, the Descendents, and Flag – the Golden Hermosa Triangle…
Stephen and I keep talking about doing something as well.
WW: When fans leave a show featuring The Last, what would you like them to take with them?
THE LAST: A mysterious uncontrollable urge to buy all of our CD’s multiple times.
WW: Joe, you have been hailed as the “Godfather of South Bay Punk”. Does it feel awesome to be regarded that way? Or just make you feel old (haha)? Has anyone approached you about writing a book about your life?
THE LAST: Actually the only messed up part was when someone called me the grandfather of the thing – I went out and started googling wheelchairs…
I am thinking of doing an autobiography, assuming there are any buyers.
The only hitches are that we need to get out of the “premature to speculate” arena if anyone is to even know or care enough – that plus books seem to be drifting down the same road that sent cd’s and vinyl over a cliff.
So I may just take up residency in some dive and squander my declining years babbling about my youthful glory to unbelieving and barely amused strangers.
WW: With everyone from the Descendents to the Bangles to the Circle Jerks citing The Last as a primary influence, are you surprised that you guys weren’t more commercially successful?
THE LAST: It would be premature to – oh wait, used that one.
Yes, something appears to have gone wrong with the plans.
Truthfully, I was unduly arrogant in my youth, so I am guessing that I have simply spent the last 33 years learning Humility. Hasn’t quite kicked in yet.
More truthfully, we either actually suck and have been deluding ourselves all this time, or we need to consider getting out more. I would blame Management if we had any, and I would blame former Management except they have lawyers and we don’t.
WW: How did you guys decide upon Raymond Pettibon as the cover artist for Danger? Or was that a no-brainer?
THE LAST: Pettibon is another old friend from the good ol’ days, and remains one of the best graphic guys out there, as well as absolutely defining the visual iconography of the South Bay Scene.
WW: What has your brother and founding member, David Nolte, been up to? Why wasn’t he involved with the Danger album?
THE LAST: While Mike and I have been off playing Don Quixote and Sancho these many years, brother David has been actually making money at music, playing with everyone from Dave Davies to David Gray to the late lamented Arthur Lee.
He does, however, pop in from time to time, and as a matter of fact he may well be involved in an upcoming Last project, which may likely find a home at End Sounds as well. It’s all about Austin…
WW: What do you guys do for a living when not rocking out? How do you like to spend your free time?
THE LAST: I am the father of a soon-to-be seven year old. I do not know the meaning of this mysterious “free time” you speak of.
Mike has a cat, Karl is newly and blissfully married, and Bill manages to keep a tiny bit busy.
I am continuing my quest to read every work of supernatural and speculative fiction produced between 1870 and 1960.
WW: If The Last had a mission statement, what would it be?
THE LAST: Our initial mission was aligned with that of the initial Punk movement: to save Rock ‘n’ Roll. We succeeded.
I suppose an updated and more specific Last mission statement would be to perfect the long overdue merging of punk, pop and psychedelia and deliver it to a suddenly if belatedly grateful world.
WW: Are there any current / new punk bands that you are digging these days?
THE LAST: There are a lot of bands out there, and many that we know, and I’m damned if I am gonna run down a list of all my friends and hope I don’t miss any…
That being said, a band that stands out is a one I don’t actually know personally, and who probably have never heard of us: the Screaming Females. They are better than anyone should be allowed to be.
WW: You and your brother, Mike, released an acoustic album called Joe ‘n’ Mike. Any chance you guys might do more of that? Were your parents musicians?
THE LAST: Daddy played piano (Debussy), Mama played sax (almost certainly not Debussy). Neither sang. Ever.
Owing to a brief period of youthful insanity, I am actually unable to record or release most of my unreleased material without paying out money I don’t have.
I do want to do more acoustic stuff. I may however only be able to sell it in a plain brown wrapper wherever dingy alleyways are found.
WW: What’s your definition of success in rock and roll?
THE LAST: Success must of necessity be something very personally defined since, at the end of the day, we will all go down into that good earth, and all we were and all we held dear will likewise turn to ashes.
Given that perspective, success is pretty temporal and temporary – I have seen stars in the gutter, and beggars exalted.
At some point in late ’78 or ’79 we had a gig at the Troubadour. It was a weeknight and we were headlining for one of the first times in our career. No one was expecting much, but the place ended up being not just packed but overflowing, with a line that extended down the street. We were called back for several encores, and then Doug Weston asked us to do an unplanned complete second set.
There is nothing that is ever quite as magical as the first unexpected surprise of success, which as with most good things is never so elusive as when you are madly in pursuit of it, and which yet remains almost within reach, ready to give itself to you when you least expect it, like the gift from the gods it is.
I couldn’t tell you if anyone made a cent that night, but to have triumphed so completely that we were called back not just for another song but a whole set took us by surprise, by a most unique and joyful surprise.
To realize that you have an audience, and are, at least for a moment, part of some yet-to-be-defined something, is magic beyond words, and I do seem to recall a brief moment of sadness, as I realized that nothing would ever be that good again…
That little magic night is my definition of success in rock and roll.
WW: What can we look forward to in the future regarding The Last?
THE LAST: We have a few ideas – there is a lot more in store, but you have caught me at a crossroads, pondering the next step. There will be more with Bill and Karl, and brother Dave, and more with the local version of the band, which now includes Philo Van Dyne, Lisa Torres and Greg Tarpley, on guitar, bass and drums respectively.
WW: Any final words of wisdom to your fans out there?
THE LAST: Don’t sign anything. Ever.