Sergie Loobkoff on Samiam, Knapsack, Racquet Club, and Meeting Jon Stewart and Cindy Crawford
For this edition of Autodiscography, we dive deep with veteran Bay Area axeman Sergie Loobkoff. Best known to the mainstream for his instantly recognizable palm-muted lead to Samiam’s 1994 hit, “Capsized,” Loobkoff has been chugging out solid gold for over thirty years.
Loobkoff started chopping with Sweet Baby and helped to open legendary Bay Area DIY venue 924 Gilman Street with Soup, evolved with the emo-punk stylings of Knapsack, Solea, and Racquet Club, and took a big gamble with his ambitious Dinosaur Jr.-fueled supergroup Felled Trees (which co-starred, well, more or less everyone he’s ever collaborated with). Additionally, Loobkoff has long-flourished as a freelance art designer for innumerable punk artists.
Most importantly, Sergie Loobkoff may be the only man on earth who can dish about hanging with Jon Stewart, Cindy Crawford, and the singer of Puddle of Mudd.
RIOT FEST: How did you find your way into punk rock?
SERGIE LOOBKOFF: I have a twin brother. We started with soul music when we were kids: Stevie Wonder, the Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire, stuff like that. My really boring first concert story is I went to Santana. I didn’t particularly like Santana; it’s more like I just went because it was an available situation. The thing that’s boring about it is that my second concert ever was Santana at the Greek Theatre a year later, and it wasn’t because I liked it. [laughs]
When punk rock and heavy metal started being interests of mine, I would sometimes like bands because I liked their sticker or their album cover; I wouldn’t necessarily be able to hear it. Obviously it wasn’t like today, where you could just check out a band on the internet. You’d actually have to buy the record, or you had to tape-trade. I didn’t necessarily know what the Canadian Subhumans sounded like, but I might like them because somehow I procured a sticker.
I don’t know why I went the second time. I play guitar, but I don’t like meandering guitar solos — which Santana usually doesn’t do on record. Live, he just meandered around, and it was kind of boring. There was lots of percussion and drum soloing, and I was like, “Ugh.” Also, the vocals didn’t necessarily mean anything, because they changed their singer all the time.
My third concert was AC/DC — this is showing how old of a guy I am — on the For Those About to Rock Tour. That brought me to more to real rock… basically clean-cut, polished punk rock. I saw Slayer tons of times, and Metallica a couple times when they just had a demo out.
For the most part, the thing that got me out of metal part was seeing the Dead Kennedys. That was less of a show and more of an event — kind of like a religious experience without the religion. It was part music, part theatrics on Jello [Biafra]’s part… and also the audience was so big and so enraptured. There were probably 600 to 800 people, but it seemed like a stadium show at the time. It also had political overtones, while Slayer talked about stupid shit…
What, like Mengele?
Well, that’s not stupid, but they talked about the devil, which is pretty stupid when you’re an atheist. It’s actually even more stupid when you’re a Catholic guy like Tom Araya is, [laughs] but that’s another interview. Dead Kennedys seemed a little more meaningful, which is what brought me into punk rock. After that, Gilman opened up and I started being in bands, and punk rock was the most important thing.
Pretty soon after that, I had another switch that sort of took me away from punk rock, which was seeing Sonic Youth. To me, it made punk rock seem… not stupid, but kind of trite, because Sonic Youth and indie rock in general… I don’t like “muso” music. I don’t like prog. You don’t have to be the best musician.
Most punk rock bands, music is almost a secondary thing to them. They want to be powerful and energetic, and a lot of bands just play kind of bonehead-y. When bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth came up, I saw that there could be a lot more dynamics and more interesting music… and you could stand still. You could pretty much plant your feet and make super powerful music without moving around and putting on a show. A lot of punk rock is just a show.
You started as a drummer in Sweet Baby before getting into guitar, and have publicly rued that you just didn’t have it, didn’t see it through. Have you ever found that infatuation with percussion seeping into your guitar playing?
I started playing music with zero aptitude and pretty much zero rhythm. Typically people that go into playing drums or piano already have a natural rhythm. For me, it was a bigger fight. When you talk about white, I-can’t-dance kind of guy [with an] underbite, [laughs], that’s exactly where I was… and that’s one of the reasons I stopped playing drums. I couldn’t semi-convincingly play Ramones-y straightforward music in Sweet Baby. I got okay at being passable.
If I could pick what I’d want to be good at, I’d be a professional skateboarder and a drummer. I’d like to be good at being with women and making a lot of money — that would be nice, too. [laughs] When I go and see bands, I very rarely watch guitar players. Even further to that point, J Mascis is probably my favorite guitar player, and that comes from the records. He comes up with these amazing solos on record that really fit the song and are really memorable. However, I’ve seen Dinosaur Jr. live over twenty times in the last thirty years, and I’d say that I thought the excessive soloing was boring as shit sixty percent of the time.
I’m the guy who did the four-count stick click to the first song that was played onstage on Gilman.
Did your involvement in Sweet Baby predate Samiam?
It did. I was playing in this band called Soup; our claim to fame is that we were the opening band at the first show at Gilman. I tell this to people who are interested in Gilman: I’m the guy who did the four-count stick click to the first song that was played onstage on Gilman.
The bass player in Soup and I impressed Dallas [Denery] and Matt [Buenrostro], so they asked us to play with [Sweet Baby]. There was this guy called Crispy Jim, who was a pretty cool bass player, but I think he might have been older (or at least he acted older), and [eventual Mr. T Experience frontman] Dr. Frank, who played a trash can. [Dallas and Matt] might’ve seen Soup and said to themselves, “We want to step up and get these two guys” — which sounds ridiculous, because I’m not a great drummer or anything.
We were also part of the scene at Gilman, so I’m sure they thought we could get them better gigs and get people more in that world interested in their band. They were grad students, so they were older and nerdy… and not punk rock. We were nerdy in a different way, of course. We were punk rock geek and they were grad student geek, which didn’t really fit Gilman?
Around that time, I started playing guitar, started Samiam, gathered the musicians, went up to Jason [Beebout, Samiam singer], and said, “Do you wanna be in a band?” So, for a short time, I was doing both.
Did you factor into writing the music, or was that all Dallas and Matt?
I didn’t really have to do with anything that’s great about it; that was all mostly Matt and Dallas’s voice. My aesthetic was totally different. When people compliment that Sweet Baby record [1989’s It’s a Girl], I go, “That’s great, that makes me feel warm inside,” but that wasn’t a big reflection on me. I sang some shitty backup vocals and played drums pretty poorly. Everything that you love about Sweet Baby was those two guys — especially Matt, who was the genius of the band.
The reason we broke up — outside of being able to sell out Gilman halfway — is that we were incredibly unpopular. I’ve never been in a band — with the exception of Knapsack — that was so ignored and unpopular. When we went out on tour, there were like three people at every show. Gilman was the only place that we could get something going that was more than ambivalent.
After Sweet Baby broke up, that’s when people discovered it — particularly the  Lookout! reissue. I said that if I’m gonna be in an unpopular band, I’m gonna be in my own unpopular band… which was Samiam.
Three members of Isocracy, including Jason Beebout, eventually formed most of Samiam’s first lineup. How did you hook up with them?
Isocracy at the time was part of the Big Two, so to speak, of original Lookout!/Gilman bands, along with Operation Ivy… and later Green Day, who could fill up Gilman by themselves. It seemed like [Isocracy] weren’t necessarily that great, but they were really irreverent — they threw garbage around, and people loved them less for the music and more for the performance.
That’s a hard thing to keep up, though, and the music didn’t really stand up to their hype, for lack of a better word. In my opinion, that’s one reason they broke up, however I’m not some authoritative voice of what happened at Gilman.
I still to this day have trouble describing Samiam to friends. I’ve alternated between punk, emo, post-punk, and post-hardcore. What do you say?
I usually just say rock; something like, “Oh, you’ve heard bands like Green Day and the Foo Fighters, right? It’s kind of like that, but it’s not that commercial and it’s not as poppy.” Usually if someone asks me what it sounds like, and they already don’t know, I really don’t want to talk to them. [laughs]
I don’t really like talking about myself or my bands, but if I do an interview with someone unlike yourself that knows nothing about the music, I really hate it; because I know none of my bands are shit — we’re just garage bands trying to do something with our lives or whatever
I don’t want to be associated with people who are in crappy bands; constantly talking about themselves and their bands; trying to puff up their chests. I find that to be one of the most annoying things about musicians. When someone asks me what my band sounds like, sometimes I just go, “You’ve heard of Led Zeppelin, right?” Then they think I’m a dick because I’m being dismissive; but really it’s, “You don’t care. I don’t care. Let’s talk about something else.”
Dr. Seuss passed away in 1991. Did you ever hear from him or his estate about the band name?
Nah, never heard from them. I’ve never had a band name that I thought was halfway decent, but we actually stupidly thought that Samiam would be more of an obscure kind of name. We didn’t realize that in America everyone grew up with Dr. Seuss and knew exactly what that was. People in other countries didn’t know Dr. Seuss, and that was kind of cool.
Another problem was no one in any other non-English-speaking country knew how to pronounce our name. [laughs] We didn’t call the band Green Eggs and Ham or anything. We thought it was vaguely subtle; but looking back, why did we think that?
After “Capsized” hit, you made your lone late-night appearance on The Jon Stewart Show. Did you get any face time with Stewart?
We did! He came into our dressing room before the show and he goes, “I just wanted to let you know I totally love you guys. I remember when you played last year at City Gardens,” which is this club in Trenton, New Jersey. While he was doing [The Jon Stewart Show] pilot, he still had to work at his old job… which was bartending at City Gardens.
That made me relax more, realizing that this guy, I don’t think he booked us, but he was from our world and wanted us to be on. One of the guests was Cindy Crawford, and another guy in Samiam said, “Hey, is there any way you can get us a picture with her?” And Stewart said, “Me? I’m just a dumb struggling TV show host. She’s not gonna listen to me. You guys are in a band, you’ll probably have better luck.”
I remember thinking that Stewart was so self-effacing and just cool. Our manager walked over [to ask for a picture] and she was like, “Pfft. No,” And we were like, “Whoa, what a mean, bitchy person.” Then she obviously thought about it, like, What if these idiots someday got big? It’d probably be a good idea. So, she stormed into our room and said, “Okay, we’re gonna do this, let’s do this,” and boom… then she split without any real pleasantries.
One other thing: We had to walk underneath the bleachers to get from the green room to the stage, And there’s like 300 to 400 people in the crowd… but they’re very far away from the stage. I wasn’t nervous about playing badly. I was nervous about, like, Please don’t break a string, please don’t have your amp break, don’t have a kick pedal break. [The broadcast is] delayed by a minute, but it’s live TV, so if it happens, it’s really fucked up.
Anyway, I saw an Obey Giant sticker on a scaffolding at the end of that walkway. This was 1994, so Shepard Fairey wasn’t at all famous like he is now. I remember looking at that and it gave me a weird sense of peace, like: Whoa, what’s that doing there? It was a distraction that made me less freaked out about playing in that weird situation.
Have you ever felt totally comfortable with what a Samiam record should sound like?
To me, Clumsy is a perfect-sounding Samiam record. At the time, I might have had problems with it being too glossy, but now it sounds better than most records. It sounds really warm to me — like a band playing in a room, and really powerful.
You Are Freaking Me Out had a little glossy sheen to it, which I feel lendss a very 90s thing about it. It’s the same thing I don’t like about [Nirvana’s] Nevermind, the same thing I don’t like about [Jawbreaker’s] Dear You, the same thing I don’t like about Dookie or some of those Green Day records. It was pre-Pro Tools.
I would say Astray sounds really good; it just doesn’t sound as good as Clumsy — not by a long shot. Then we put out another record that was a reaction to that — trying to make a real raw record in 2006 — which is Whatever’s Got You Down — and I’m the first person to say that record sounds like shit. If I was a guy that listened to Samiam, I probably would’ve gone, Man, that record sucks; it sounds like shit, they suck.” [laughs]
Now that time’s gone by, I’m not so precious with it.
Is there anything in this band’s history as surreal as when you played the end of a Weston tour in a stretch limo?
Obviously, that was one of the weirder things we did. A couple of the other guys in the band really took the ride. Near the end of that tour, we played in Las Vegas and some rich lady came to the show and thought she’d discovered a new band, even though we’d been that band for like 12 years.
She plucked us out of our van at the end of the show and put us in our own private separate suites at the Bellagio and said, “Okay, you guys drive back home to San Francisco. We’re gonna rent you a van and a driver for your equipment, and a stretch limo [for the musicians]. Also, I’m going to take you shopping several times.”
A couple of the guys (I won’t point out who they were) just took her for a fucking ride. We went shopping, and one of them was like, “I can’t tell whether I want the tortoise shell, black, or brown $250 sunglasses,” and she was like, “Get all three!”
Needless to say, I was uncomfortable with it. This limo would drive us to the shows and we’d be like, “Could you please drop us off four blocks from the venue?” It makes for a great story now. At the time, I definitely thought, What am I doing with my life? Has it come to this?
Your first appearance on a Knapsack record was 1998’s This Conversation Is Ending Starting Right Now. What was going on with Samiam at the time that made you take on a second band?
We made You Are Freaking Me Out, then we got dropped from Atlantic, and there was a two-year period when we were trying to wrangle [the album back] from them, and it took forever. We played shows, but it took us a while to get the record, so I had time and interest in doing a different band.
I joined [Knapsack] about three months before the second record [Day Three of My New Life] came out. They were trying to play as a three-piece. I went and saw them and was like, “Whoa, you guys need another guitar player — this isn’t cutting it.” I didn’t actually plan on seriously joining their band.
Then it blossomed. I realized I liked the guys and the songs, and it would be fun to be in the band. For practice, in the beginning, I had to drive up to Sacramento, which is an hour and a half away. So in the back of my mind, I was like, I’ll do this until I’m sick of that drive.
Given that the band already had an established aesthetic over two albums, what was the transition like co-writing with Blair Shehan?
It’s a big transition to play with people where either you write the song and you tell everyone how to do it, or you write the song and everyone is equal in their opinion. With Blair, he’s the creative director, so to speak… the maestro.
I have no big problem with it. It’s something to get used to, sort of being like the ghostwriter. I feel that way a little bit, but not spiteful.
You asked what the transition was like. Well, it took a lot of open-mindedness and a lack of considering my own ego to be able to do that. It was a lot easier in Racquet Club, because in that band I knew going in it would be just that. I was like, If you start getting irritated or mad with this scenario, you only have one person to be mad at, and that’s yourself.
I think it’s an optics issue. Generally, when you have a dude playing guitar and singing onstage, the assumption is that they must be the songwriter.
In a song, what’s really important is the vocal melody and the lyrics. What’s really good about any of his bands is Blair’s vocals and the lyrics; but the music’s the fun for me. Making up songs is fun for me. And making up songs with Blair is not fun — it’s torture. It’s very slow.
I could write ten records a year — I’m not saying any of them are gonna be any good — but it would be really fun for me. It took almost two years for us to write the Racquet Club record. He really needs to wait for inspiration. He’s not a guy that will power through it.
Racquet Club have a fun half-performance/half-concept video for “Head Full of Bees.” How many videos have you participated in over your career? Do you get — or want — a creative say?
We did four videos for Samiam, and I did one for Knapsack. They vary from being embarrassingly terrible to passable. None of them are good. Video is not my medium in any way, and videos are not something that I really appreciate, with the exception of a couple of really great ones. It was always a struggle for Racquet Club.
One video I would say that stands out is Beck’s “Where It’s At.” It’s really funny and it kind of has a dark sense of humor and a bleak L.A. kind of vibe about it that’s really cool, even though it’s an upbeat pop song. Much to our surprise, we knew someone that knew the director [Steve Hanft], and we got him to do our Racquet Club video for next-to-no money.
All of us have different ideas of what’s cool and what’s not cool; but none of us have any inkling of how to compose or produce a video. We’re in the process of figuring out how to make a second video for the Racquet Club record, and it is a source of big anxiety and frustration figuring out what to do and how to do it.
We want a video that doesn’t take ourselves seriously, that has some kind of twist that’s dark, like an episode of Black Mirror or Twin Peaks, but we don’t want to make an emo video or some kind of melodramatic thing. [laughs] We’re like a garage band, basically. We’re not commercial makers.
If I read your bio correctly, when Samiam toured with Texas is the Reason in 1996, you started collaborating with Garrett Klahn. How many of those initial songs made it onto the first Solea album eight years later?
That’s not how it went down; we just talked. I was thirty and he was, I guess, 21. Even though he was a lot younger, we really bonded on that tour. We might have even said that we should play together someday. Although I don’t know if he’d admit it now, I think [Klahn] was somewhat of a Samiam fan before that, and he was a little enamored by us on that tour.
Basically, what happened was we started trading MP3s and talking about playing in 2001, and the first songs that came out happened in 2001.
That band was pretty prolific — two albums in three years, multiple splits and singles. Why did it end?
Looking back, it was a total repeated pattern with Garrett where he gets really excited about a project, and then three or four years later, he gets totally disinterested and it flames out. That’s what happened with Texas, that’s what happened with New Rising Sons, that’s what happened with Solea, and after that, that’s what happened with Atlantic/Pacific.
Basically, we were making that second album [2006’s Finally We Are Nowhere], and he just kind of went AWOL. It was because he just wasn’t interested in it… and then he sort of begrudgingly finished it. I wanted to do a lot more but he was like, “Nope, I’m done.”
We’re really great friends. I say this without spite or anything, but he got bored of me musically and got bored of Solea as a thing. I’d still be doing it now, actually. We’d be on, like, our eighth album by now. [laughs]
You’ve already talked about your appreciation for Mascis. Why pick Where You Been and not, say, Bug or You’re Living All Over Me for what turned out to be an all-star full-album cover band? Were you the orchestrator of this whole thing?
Yeah. How it started was, I tried to rally the troops and with a real big push to make another Samiam record from around 2013 to 2015. We even made a demo of four songs. Basically, Jason’s just been disinterested; it didn’t happen.
So, 2013, I said, Fuck it, I wanna make a record. I have a band to do it with, but I don’t have a single. So, I thought of the idea of doing a Dinosaur Jr. record.
I’ve learned a lot of Dinosaur Jr. songs. If I’m not writing a song, I’m pretty much playing along to songs. That’s what I do. I don’t practice scales or learn theory — I just play along with records a lot. I’ve been doing that for thirty years. It goes back to that thing earlier about how even now I have a dissatisfaction with how when performing live, J Mascis doesn’t play the solos that he does on the records. He sort of just does freeform solos, which I find boring.
I spent time learning the solos on my favorite ones, so I came into it like, Man, I know fifty or sixty 50 percent of this record. It isn’t necessarily my favorite one… I’d actually say Bug is my favorite record, or You’re Living All Over Me. But that record’s the one that I knew the most.
I did [the record] with Ed [Breckenridge]. It all started when I was in Hot Water Music’s room backstage in an arena (they were opening up for Gaslight Anthem). Thrice had broken up at the time, and we hadn’t talked to each other in like ten years, but we really bonded. He asked me, “Hey, are you going to go to Dinosaur Jr.?” out of the blue, which was coming up in a month.
So, when this idea came up, I go, “Fuck, I’ll ask Ed.” I was a little bit sheepish, ’cause he’s in fucking Thrice, who make tons of money… but much to my surprise, he was very enthusiastic.
We tried to get Jon Bunch [Sense Field] to do it, but he flaked out. That one sucks, because it was right before he died. My last interaction with Bunch was, Goddamn fuckin’ Jon, fuckin’ flake. I wasn’t mad-mad, just kind of irritated. “You literally live, like, three blocks away from where we’re recording and I live an hour and a half away.”
Anyway, he had another band going on near the end of his life. Now it sounds like I’m a real asshole, [laughs] speaking ill of the dead.
I imagine it would be logistically almost impossible, but did Felled Trees ever play out?
We wanted to, but it was impossible. No singer lived in L.A. One guy, Davy [Warsop, Suedehead vocalist], lived in Orange County. The other thing is, by the time the record came out, it was a good seven months since we’d recorded and played it, and I’d have to go relearn it. [laughs] I wanted to do it, but it would’ve been hard.
By then, Knapsack had gotten back together, so I had them and Samiam. So then doing that also would be too much. Also, there’s the risk of booking a show and four people showing up.
Do you know if Mascis has heard the album and, if so, what he thought about it?
Yeah, because we ran it by the manager. We were worried he was going to make a stink about it, but he was all for it. I’m sure it was lip service — just knowing what I know about J Mascis, I doubt he’s the type of guy that would verbalize that he thinks it’s pretty good. So, I took it with a grain of salt when that manager guy said to the guy at our label, “J heard it and he was stoked.” It was like, “Yeah, okay, that’s just a polite thing that you say.”
SLAPPED TOGETHER // ARTWORK & DESIGN
I don’t know if mascot is the right word, but I’ve seen the same image on a lot of Samiam’s merch: a disembodied head with devil’s horns and buck teeth. Does it have a name?
I refer to it as El Diablo — you know, devil in Spanish. I actually don’t really consider it to be a Samiam thing; it’s more like a me thing for my freelance design stuff. It was part of a T-shirt design that I did years ago — like mid-90s.
It was a take on this RV club that they had; it’s not so popular now, but when we were touring, you’d see it everywhere. It was Good Sam Club, with a circle that had a goofy 50s drawing with a guy with a halo over his head. Good Samaritan; like Sam, short for Samaritan. So, I drew a little devil instead of the halo over the guy. That shirt didn’t actually sell very well. [laughs]
I don’t know why or when, but I started using that devil for Samiam-related shit. It just stuck. Everyone said it looked like a Simpsons drawing, and I’m like, “Oh, because it has an overbite with teeth coming out and big old eyeballs? Yeah, I guess so.”
I’m obviously not gonna put it on a Racquet Club record or anything. I’ve [toyed] with instead of saying “designed by Sergie Loobkoff,” just putting the devil on [layouts] as a little trademark. Then I was realized I couldn’t put that guy on everyone’s record… Some people are gonna object to it.”
I spent some time on the Slapped Together page. You obviously have an impressive résumé, but there was one thing I thought was particularly interesting: You designed the Puddle of Mudd logo?
I sure did.
Is that sort of thing an outlier in your work? That’s obviously a little out of your wheelhouse of working with, say, Fat Wreck Chords.
Well, I do a lot of major label stuff. I have no gold records for music, but I have several gold records for laying out records out that did go gold. I’ve never received my platinum record, but I think the Avenged Sevenfold record went platinum, so I could have one. [laughs]
Our old manager had started managing Puddle of Mudd. I went and hung out with Wes [Scantlin, frontman] a bunch. I have to admit, while he did have sort of a drug-fueled rock star-like ambiance around him, his band was not popular yet when I laid that out. Then they sold a couple million records and then he was popular. I didn’t like the songs. I thought it sounded like a third-rate Nirvana cover band. I didn’t get it.
Are you at a point where you can pick and choose assignments, doing stuff you enjoy versus something you know you’re not going to have a good time working on?
Nah, I do everything that people ask me. I’m the kind of guy that, even if I take on too much work and I have to stay up all night, I’ll do it. I know this shit’s gonna dry up at times and I’m so manic about collecting money for the time when I don’t have a job.
I probably wouldn’t do a Nazi skinhead record or anything like that. [laughs] My dream project would be working with an easy client that likes what I do. I would be stoked to do the next Dinosaur Jr. record, but the actual process may not necessarily be funner. It could be a pain in the ass to work with their label or to work with J.