Any book covering Detroit punk ’n’ roll over the past 30 years would have Timmy Vulgar rubbing his boogers all over the pages. Unreconstructed, seemingly an insane person’s drawing of a rabid space ape come to life, Timmy has fronted four iconic bands (the Epileptix, the Clone Defects, Human Eye, and Timmy’s Organism). Timmy’s Organism released their sixth full-length, Lone Lizard, this year on Sweet Time Records. Beyond that he is a visual artist, a chef, and both the biggest booster and occasional thorn in the side of Detroit music. Let’s jaw with him.
First off, where are you from originally? Where did music first grab you?
I grew up all over, and my folks moved around a lot. Mostly in Michigan, but we did live in Arizona, too. My older brothers Paul and Joe got me into metal and rock. I really loved Bark at the Moon by Ozzy in first grade. Then when we got to Arizona it all changed toward punk before I was 13 or so. We lived in Arizona for five years, where I got into skateboarding, punk, and “postmodern” rock! [Laughs] I passed puberty in the desert while catching lizards, deadly scorpions, and black widows. It was in about third or fourth grade that my brother Paul showed me the Boneless Ones, a hardcore skate punk band. I remember the speed of the music taking me like a tidal wave. I was sidewalk surfing on the 180-degree, fry-an-egg asphalt! WHOOOOOAH! I fell in love.
Oh, and The Doors. That would have been eighth grade when Oliver Stone’s bio-flick The Doors came out! I went on a double date to see it opening weekend, it was sold out. Tons of hippies and rockers from the actual Doors era packed the theater. They were drinking and probably on psychedelics. You could smell weed, people were cheering and going nuts throwing shit! It was like a concert, it blew my mind. I bought the soundtrack tape. That’s when I first heard the Velvet Underground, but I got more into them some years later.
Any other life-altering songs from your youth?
The Misfits, Walk Among Us. My heavy metal buddy and very first bandmate in middle school, Evan Hirschelman—who is now a well-known classical guitarist, google him—gave me that tape. It was in the fall, around Halloween. In that cloudy, gloomy Michigan weather, the perfect soundtrack when I’d ride the bus to and from school listening to this tape on my headset obsessively. Him and I and some buddies started a band called Meltdown. We did covers: Slayer, D.R.I., Guns N’ Roses, and the Doors. We played two school dances. You had to have a passing grade point average to go to the dances, but I was flunking. They made an exception for me because we were the entertainment. I was only allowed to play the show, then leave right after. My folks would drop me off right before we’d play, then pick me up right after we were done. I was an exclusive eighth-grade rock star and had no clue. “Ladies and gentlemen, Timmy has left the building!”
Also, the Sex Pistols’ “Submission.” Catchy punk number. Midtempo sleaze. I was 14 or 15.1 was also inspired after seeing the punk movies The Decline of Western Civilization and Suburbia. I spiked my short hair, dug through the kitchen junk drawer, safety-pinned, duct-taped, and glued everything I could find to a khaki canvas thrift store jacket I spray-painted all crazy. Took acid for the first time and carved “SID!” on my hand. My folks said I looked like a clown. “This ain’t no costume! It’s a way of life!”
My buddy Mark Ortner picked me up and we went to see Civil Disobedience and Social Outcast in the scary Cass Corridor of Detroit at the time. (What is now a yuppie zone.) Everyone at the 404 Willis DIY club was 10 years older and looked like GBH. I got grounded when I came home super late.
So now you have your education. How’d the Epileptix get started?
I had a band called the Kosby Kids with my cousin Clay; we had just played at a VFW hall in Westland, Michigan. I met Nai Sammon at the show. We drank 40s of Mickey’s and blasted the Dead Kennedys in Clay’s car. Nai and I hit it off with musical taste. He told me he played guitar, so we talked about starting a band, we made it happen. We wrote a bunch of songs together. It took a month or so before we had the first lineup: Nai on Guitar, Lauren Wilcox on bass, Tyler Rea on drums; I snotted on vocals. We almost called the band the Hapless Bastards, named after the New Bomb Turks song. But we went with the Epileptix. I think we thought of it because that’s how we liked to dance. We also wanted to call our first album Greatest Fits.
Our first few shows were at the Falcon Club in Hamtramck, the Old Miami, and 404 Willis in Detroit in early 1995. Then after Lauren left the band we had Brett Meyer on bass for a spell, but he took off on his motorcycle and moved to the desert. Then we found mainstay Rob Low. He would projectile vomit all over his bass guitar on stage. He was the perfect fit, no pun intended.
After playing a bunch of spit-, puke-, and blood-soaked shows around Detroit with our friends the Catfish, Hatchet Job, West End, Anxietys, Scurvies, Bump-N-Uglies, Jim Beam and the Throw Ups, and later on Gutter Punx and the Murder City Wrecks, we finally got in the studio and recorded seven or eight songs at Downriver Sounds Studios. We did a cassette tape called Kill Yourself, then our first 7-inch, “Self Hate.” The punks were banging their heads against the floor and stage at the release show. It was chaos!
How did it end?
We released our second 7-inch, “Disco Slut,” a song about our dislike for techno and ravers. Then we did a split 7-inch with the Druggies and finally our one and only album, Greatest Fits. After three years of fury we broke up; it just kinda fizzled, I think. I moved back to Arizona with Niki Moote, my girlfriend at the time. We lived there for six months. We saw Teengenerate, New Bomb Turks, and the Cosmic Psychos, that really changed my life. So when I moved back and the Epileptix were done, I wanted to start my own band and play guitar, remembering that show in Arizona. I wanted to play insane rock ’n’ roll. Nai went off to form the infamous Piranhas with Jimbo Easter and Bumbo Krawczyk.
So now we’re approaching Y2K and the birth of the Clone Defects. What made that different, this new band?
Clone Defects were all core members of the band, like a tight-knit gang. Epileptix too. I mean, that’s the mindset you need when you’re in a real rock ’n’ roll band. That’s the fuel that gives it passion and honesty. These are my best friends! My brothers! We all came from the bottom-of-the-barrel scene from different bands that played together. Chuck Fogg, on bass, came from Hatchet Job; Wild Mid Wes, lead guitar, played in the Anxietys, and Fast Eddie Altesleben, on drums, played in the Tonsil Boxers. The difference between Clone Defects and Epileptix? Cloney Ds were just a little bit more responsible; not much more but just enough to tour and put out a few more records. The Clone Defects sound was a bit more evolved simultaneously with our advancement in our punk rock education. We had more influences by then. Nai Sammon and I got into the Pagans and the Electric Eels together. All that Cleveland proto-punk and late-’70s punk—Clone Defects wanted to harness that kind of stuff in the early years. So the Clone Defects formed in a rotted, flooded basement in Warrendale, Detroit, in April of 1998. We knew we had something ugly and promising in our hands.
This led into the “garage rock boom years” of the 2000s—an odd time to explain to anybody who wasn’t there. How was it for you and the band? It seemed like “mutant punk,” while on the fringes, did get some attention when the spotlight pointed at Detroit for a bit.
We had the time of our lives. You’re in your early 20s with tons of killer music all around you! There’s great Detroit underground bands now, too. But it was a time before the oversaturated, confusing, scary internet and that mind destroyer called social media.
We definitely were and are mutants. We named the band Clone Defects because that’s the same time they cloned a sheep. I was like, “Man, by the time the band gets famous there’s gonna be a bunch of clone defects everywhere walking around all crooked.” We got local attention right away from the not-much-older garage scene: Rocket 455, Bantam Rooster, the Dirtys, the Hentchmen, the White Stripes, the Go, the Dirtbombs, the Detroit Cobras, etc. We recorded our first two 45s with Jack White; our two albums with Jim Diamond. Those bands took us under their wing. We followed the same tour routes. Mick Collins told Larry Hardy from In the Red Records, “You gotta check these guys out!” Super cool.
The Piranhas were our brother band, and the Murder City Wrecks too. The Piranhas definitely attacked! Their local attention was a little different from ours; they were banned from every bar, especially the Gold Dollar. Jimbo Easter got banned from one club for stapling his ass cheeks, and at the Gold Dollar, he duct-taped a dead rat to his torso on stage. Wild story. People were walking out of the show disgusted. When there were skinheads at their show, Nai and Jimbo would make out to scare them away. It worked and the chicks loved it. Not just a great stage show, but the music was sophisticated, very well written. Clone Defects got called garage, but we definitely didn’t feel that way. We dug garage rock/punk, but we didn’t wanna be garage. No way. We just wanted to play rock ’n’ roll from the sewers of Mars.
Clone Defects end and then Human Eye take the stage?
I tried keeping Clone Defects together, but the inspiration was fading. I could sense it, unfortunately. A couple of the guys had another band goin’, the Valentinos—a super cool band, and that 45 is killer, by the way. I was super bummed it was over. So I knew I had to start something new. It was late summer/fall of 2003.1 met Johnny LZR at a party and we talked about music. He told me he was experimenting with synthesizers. So we planned a jam. I went to Johnny’s house and his roommate, Thommy Childers, was building a model of a human eye. “Hey, Thommy, what’s that you’re building?” “It’s a model of a human eye!” “Whoa, that’d be a cool band name.”
It’s just that simple, huh?
So Johnny and I jammed for a few. He mentioned that Thommy played bass. So Thommy joined in on bass. I probably got the tapes somewhere. We needed a drummer, so LZR got one of his skateboard buddies, Crazy Jim, to play. We recorded some with Crazy Jim, but before we got back in the studio he got arrested and thrown in jail! I kinda put the word on the street that we needed a new drummer. I met Hurricane William at the Magic Stick in Detroit. He was eating a slice of pizza and in mid-bite he nonchalantly asks me, “I heard you need a drummer?” I said yes. I asked him if he could play a fast Ramones beat. He said, “Yup.” You know the quick hi-hat thing that everyone finally figured out by now? We went back in the studio to record two more songs. Billy added so much with his Beefheartian, progged-out fillings. Plus he is this great artist, too. He’s, like, this mystical man behind the drums. He also played saxophone and xylophone! Whoa, we can add messed-up acid jazz elements now. Johnny LZR was an art assistant and a prolific artist himself. A total alien. We both connected with the cosmic mysteries of the universe. Thommy was this Mick Ronson glam rock star who had the look down to a T. Wow, we got us a freakin’ band! 2004 and we were all 28 years old. Bicentennial biological bog rockers from the planet Nibiru.
That sounds magical. Where’d it go from there?
In 2006 Thommy left the band. Brad Hales joined up on bass a week before a mini-tour to NYC and back. He learned 10 or more songs in a week. He added a whole new element to the group. He’s a northern soul, Motown rock ’n’ roll professor. Him and Billy can lock in together classically. We played Dot Dash Fest in NYC, put together by Tom Hyland with a bunch of garage punk bands including Japan’s Teengenerate—my favorite band at the time—the night after us. I got banned from the fest for lighting a TV set on fire and smashing it up with an old vacuum cleaner. I challenged the 6'2" bouncers to a street fight. I forgot my trombone. I missed my Japanese idols.
And now you’re on your sixth album—Lone Lizard— with Timmy’s Organism, your current band with Jeff “Giant” Fournier and Scott Dunkerly. How would you describe the different sounds of each band? How does it compare to your solo stuff?
It all kind of started with the Clone Defects and listening to the Electric Eels and Peter Laughner. Those ballads by Peter and the nutty punk Eels stuff. It’s kinda all over the place. For every punk rock ’n’ roll song we did with the Defects, I wanted to do a weird avant-garde one. Mix it up, ya know? Then Human Eye is kinda like that all around. Then when Timmy’s Organism started, I wanted to go back to heavy rock ’n’ roll punk. It all depends on what I’m listening to at the time, too. Playing in a band with your buds is articulate and thought out, like a detailed drawing or painting. My solo stuff is more impulsive and off the top of my head, mostly. Like one of my splattery paintings.
How’s it feel to be an “elder statesman” of Detroit punk? Any advice for the brats?
I don’t really feel that way. I still feel like I’m in my 20s but with way more experience in life, if that makes sense. Advice? Let’s blast some records together and you too can receive a reverse mohawk! Also, the internet is not food and water. It’s just a toolbox.
Last question. What do you want it to say on your tombstone?
“Dying is dumb.”