The man who discovered Green Day and Operation Ivy spoke to Ewan Atkinson about the bay-area punk scene, writing books and nearing the end of democracy.
Larry Livermore founded Lookout records in 1987, a label that would later put out music by Green Day, Operation Ivy, Screeching Weasel and plenty of other artists. After retiring from the label 1997, Larry has since written two books, Spy Rock Memories and How To Ru(i)n A Record Label: The Story of Lookout Records which was published last year.
When did you get the idea to start writing books?
I tried to write my first book when I was 9 or 10 years old. It was about the fall of the American Empire (based on my having just learned at school about the fall of the Roman Empire). It was told from the viewpoint of archaeologists excavating the ruins of Detroit a thousand years in the future (turns out they wouldn't have had to wait so long!). I only got a few pages done before I lost interest or went outside to play or whatever, but I've had writing books on my mind ever since.
Is it the same motivation you had when you started The Lookouts and then Lookout records?
I think the motivation is very similar for any form of art or creativity: to express oneself, but also, hopefully, to provide something of value, be it informative, entertaining, or inspiring — or ideally all three, to the world at large.
What was it like in the late 80s/ early 90s running a label like Lookout?
I just wrote a whole book about that. I encourage people to read it. (Smashed Vinyl also encourages you to read it, it’s very good!)
Any crazy stories from those days?
I refer to my previous answer. The only thing I'll add is that various readers/listeners will probably differ on what they consider "crazy" and what is just normal or par for the course. Reading about the label, not to mention the scene in which it grew up and flourished, provides a glimpse into a subculture/counterculture which, in a way is like an anthropological study of an unusual tribe from a previously undiscovered world. In many respects the reader is reassured of the old cliché that "people are people wherever you may find them", but at the same time there are sufficient quirks and oddities - in speech, behaviour, and values - to make one realise that these people are just that little bit off the beaten path, just enough so that they and what they produce becomes at least momentarily fascinating. Then, of course, the world rushes in, buys up, consumes, and absorbs everything in sight until homogeneity and normal service are restored.
When you were running Lookout what was it you looked for in a band before you signed them?
For the first several years I never "signed" anyone. If I saw or knew a band I liked, I would just ask them if they wanted to make a record. And what I looked for, I usually found at live shows, almost never on demo tapes. If I saw a band light up a crowd and take them to some heretofore unimagined level of excitement and involvement, that was all I needed to know, even if it was a case - as it was with both Operation Ivy and Green Day - of a brand new band who'd only been around for a few months or less.
When you signed Green Day in '89 did you have any idea how big they would become?
It was in 1988 when I asked them to do a record; it was maybe their third or fourth show ever. I actually thought they might even get bigger than they did (there's still time, of course!). I felt like they could reach the level of the Beatles, but what I was forgetting or maybe didn't understand at the time was that pop culture had fragmented into many different styles and genres since the 1960s, and that therefore probably no band would ever be as big as the Beatles, who had the advantage of operating at time when pop culture was more monolithic, i.e., when almost everyone listened to the same music.
What about Operation Ivy? Although they didn't reach Green Days commercial successes, they are known and loved around the world.
They may not have sold quite as many records as Green Day, but they did pretty well for a band who broke up the week their record came out and never did a thing before or after to promote it. At least a million Operation Ivy records have been sold, and probably considerably more than that, and maybe more significantly, they continued to grow in popularity and in respect accorded to them long after they ceased to exist, right up to the present day. I remember getting in an argument with a Mordam Records employee in 1988 when I told him that someday Operation Ivy would be like Minor Threat or the Dead Kennedys, in that they'd be one of those bands whose legacy would continue to grow for decades into the future (bear in mind that this is when Op Ivy were typically playing Gilman-sized shows for crowds of one or two hundred people). He thought that was so hilarious and outrageous that he dragged me around the entire warehouse and made me repeat it to everyone we encountered. "Wait till you hear what Larry just said about Operation Ivy!" he'd say, and they'd nod their heads as if to say, "Well, we already knew he was kind of crazy, so why are you tormenting him about it?"
What do you think the next Green Day record will sound like?
Like Green Day, hopefully.
What do you make of the politics in the US right now? What made it get to this point in your opinion?
The US is at a dangerous, perhaps crucial point in its history. I think there's a serious possibility that it won't survive as a democracy, which could of course be bad news for its neighbours and the world in general. We've been heading in this direction for a number of decades now, and among the factors is underinvestment in infrastructure, both physical and social, and this in turn is the result of a growing cynicism - encouraged by those who, at least in the short-term, think they can profit from it - that has left millions of Americans doubting the worth of government itself. Wealthy corporations and individuals who prefer to pay little or no tax have pushed that narrative, and it's worked so well that the government is chronically short of money to invest in the things that people expect government to do, and to do well. And that, in turn, confirms the idea that government is ineffectual and should not be trusted or empowered. A vicious circle, as you can see. One of the areas in which we are drastically falling short is education; with people having little understanding of how economics and political systems operate and interact, it's easy for demagogues to manipulate them into voting against their own interests. Eventually you wind up with... Donald Trump.
British politics, like America, is becoming more polarised. What do you think is the cause of it in the UK?
British politics are in a similarly dire state, though perhaps not quite as far gone as in the US. Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic, but it's my impression that the British people are at least somewhat more aware and tuned into what is going on politically, though they've been the victims of many of the same forces that have been at work in the US. I'm particularly flummoxed by what looks to be the demise of the Labour Party as we've known it. I know many of my friends are true believers in Corbyn, and think he will somehow manage to restore Labour to its former glory days, but honestly, the last time a particularly left-wing Labour Party was able to form a government was 70 years ago, and though Atlee and Co did great work, they barely lasted six years. The Wilson and Blair governments represented more of the broad church Labour movement that many hardcore leftists revile (very much as Bernie Bros can't stand Hillary Clinton in the US), but that seems to be what Labour needs to do if it ever wants to govern.
Are you writing any more books?
I'm working on a third memoir right now, based on my experiences visiting and living in England beginning in 1975. It's not specifically music-based, but because many of the people I knew and hung out with were deeply involved in that scene, music plays a significant role. However, the greater theme involves learning to live in, understand, and appreciate a new culture which in some respects remarkably resembles one's own but in other, vital ways, is dramatically different. Which is kind of what I was dealing with in my first two memoirs as well. After that, I'll be writing a novel, which has already been in its formative stages for years.