Returning to the Psychedelic
The roots of the United States of Existence extend back to 1975 and the progressive rock group “Klangfarb.” Formed by high school friends Bob Tiefenwerth and Paul Rieger, Klangfarb was an instrumental group that used tape loops and other "musique concrète" techniques. Although the group made only one vinyl appearance on 1980’s “The Best of Baltimore’s Buried,” and one later appearance on the CD release “The Best of Baltimore’s Buried II” in 2003, Klangfarb’s assemblage of basement tapes is extensive and unreleased.
Bob and Paul, avid bargain record collectors, discovered that they both loved 60’s psychedelic music. Each tried to outdo the other in obtaining the most obscure budget bin "classics". Everything was fair game, from the high art of the United States of America to dreaded
44 cent specials. Fortunately, vintage LPs by groups like the Electric Prunes, Phluph and Bohemian Vendetta could be picked-up for peanuts in those days.
Their love of 60's psychedelia coupled with the fact that Klangfarb had run its course, led to the inevitable: they would form their own psychedelic band. In 1978, the "United States of Existence” began its existence.
Vintage equipment and Nehru jackets were procured from various thrift shops. Bob's Telstar combo organ had already been purchased from an East Baltimore barber shop. The Vox Phantom six string and Fender twelve string were soon followed by the theremin. The Maestro theremin blew-out the ceiling lights in the basement “studio” during its first run through.
Although they had yet to find a lead singer, the band forged ahead with rehearsal on their planned first single, "Return to the Psychedelic" and "Distortions". Basic tracks were recorded in the basement on a Teac 3340-S 4-track with a Tapco mixer. Within a few years, the group updated to a Tascam 80-8 recorder and an Electrovoice 12 channel mixer.
They hit a stumbling block, though, when their drummer, Bert Taylor left the group in late '78. Bert was an amazing drummer who longed to play in a heavier, prog-blues style. Bob and Bert worked on some songs together as Bert transitioned to his new band. Fortunately, Paul had been introduced to drummer Gary Schwartz, a friend of the local prog band "Neige", one of Baltimore's finest late 70's progressive bands. Gary auditioned for the group and was enlisted, immediately.
The final piece of the puzzle fell into place with the addition of Dennis Davison. Dennis had been lead singer for his punk band, "Ebenezer and the Bludgeons.” Paul had heard Dennis' band several times before and hearing the Bludgeon's demo tape cinched it. Dennis was committed to his own band (then called “Alter Legion”) but by then, the USE had all but given up on the idea of playing live due to various logistical constraints, so the two endeavors were never in conflict.
Dennis wrapped-up "Return," although the band dropped the proposed flip side, "Distortions," thus establishing a pattern of self-criticism that sent many U.S.E. songs to the scrap heap. Oho's Jay Graboski heard "Return" and recommended that the band send off a tape to Bomp's Greg Shaw. Greg Shaw loved the song and included it as the lead-off on Voxx' s "Battle of the Garages," released in 1981.
With this one song, the USE achieved instant recognition. To many, "Return" was a sonic slap in the face that heralded the beginning of the second psychedelic era. The song received significant airplay on Rodney Bingenheimer's KROQ show “Rodney on the ROQ” and somehow wound up on an Australian 60's sampler which included bands such as the Jefferson Airplane and the Animals.
Buoyed by the positive feedback, the band continued working on songs such as "Love to the 44th Power," "Marching off to War," and "Shadows of Rainbows," which included parts of the scrapped "Distortions." After a rehearsal one night, Gary asked Paul to engineer a corn flakes jingle, written by Gary, which featured Gary on vocals. Of course, no one in the group had had any idea that Gary could sing, too. Gary became the source of most of the USE's harmony vocals. "Shadows," featuring both Dennis and Gary on vocals, was released on Chip Lamey's Sounds Interesting label on the sampler "The Rebel Kind," in 1983.
The group's next release proved to be one of their most ambitious records. By 1983 the group was becoming increasingly interested in vocal harmonies and the records of the great harmony groups of the 60's. One of their favorite groups was the Association, particularly their second L.P., "Renaissance." Against this backdrop, Bob created one of the USE’s best songs, "Anything Goes."
The band knew that the song had the potential to become a USE classic, but felt that the complicated vocal harmonies would be difficult for Dennis and Gary to pull-off by themselves. At one point Bob jokingly remarked that "what we need is for Jules Alexander to come down here and do the vocal parts for us." Somewhere in the twisted USE collective mind, the idea began to solidify and take on a life of its own. When the band found out that a re-formed Association would be playing in Baltimore the following month, the stage was set.
Paul got in touch with the Association and forwarded a tape of the song to Jules Alexander. Jules and Terry Kirkman both liked the song and, along with Larry Ramos and Rick Ulsky, agreed to do the harmony parts.
The next day, the four members of the Association arrived at the USE basement "studio" (a picnic table housing the 80-8 and mixer) to record. The four were extraordinarily good natured and thoroughly professional in their approach. Hearing the group run through the harmony parts a cappella in the USE basement, was, as Gary notes, “one of those bizarre but incredible once in a lifetime experiences.”
The USE then wrapped-up "Makin' My Scene," as the flip side to their single featuring "Anything Goes." Released in early 1984, the single rated as the No. 10 single for 1984 in Blitz Magazine. The band then turned their energies towards completing an LP's worth of material. Work on the album was painstaking as the group experimented with many ideas and sounds. Layers of fuzz bass, sitar, tambourine and electric harpsichord abound, along with subtleties like autoharp, sleigh bells and backwards guitars. The group tried for a disciplined sound on the recordings, in stark contrast to their usually incoherent and thankfully seldom recorded "jams." As Bob recollects, "our jamming usually started out ok, but always degenerated into something like the Bohemian Vendetta doing "Satisfaction" on a bad night."
The group completed work on the LP in late 1985 and signed with Bam Caruso, an English label that specialized in 60's reissues and compilations. The LP, "Introducing the United States of Existence" (originally entitled "State of the Union Address" until the Long Ryders released their "State of Our Union") was released by Bam Caruso in the U.K. and Europe in July of 1986. Once again, the LP was a critical success and picked up positive reviews in Bucketful of Brains, Goldmine and Austria's Wiernerin among others.
Thanks to Guerssen Records and Shindig Magazine, the band has not been forgotten. In late 2020 Guerssen released a USE vinyl anthology, “The Psychedelic Yesterdays of Tomorrow.” Shindig Issue No. 111 featured the group in “It’s a Happening Thing.” An in-depth interview was conducted by the online mag “It’s Psychedelic Baby.”
Today, the four are recording music remotely. Gary has been a web presence for over ten years, releasing digital singles through Bandcamp. Gary's 2019 single "Less is More" was a song intended for USE release but never completed at the time. Paul and Gary digitized the original drums, guitar and organ from the master tape and the four enhanced and added new parts. Paul put together an electric folk-pop project with Bob (along with help from a few online music collaborators) called “Les Neiges D’Antan.” Their digital single "So Sorry" was reviewed favorably by Camilla Aisa in Shindig! 127 "... that very sweet wistfulness is cradled by jangly guitars and baroque-pop grace." Dennis enlisted Bob to work on his current solo project with a goal of producing a song a month.
But the best news is that the four have regrouped and are producing all manner of music, again, as United States of Existence. Tracks under construction include "Gory Glory Hallelujah," "For Example," "Can You Give Me a Hey," "Sleeping Beauty Revisited" and "We Love the Sun." More to follow...