Here are some reviews, and an interview-
Maine Sunday Telegram, 9/26/82:
John Etnier's The Demo is a triumph, an album that is so truly different from most current product that the record-listening public doesn't know what to make of it.
That can be a real liability when people on your own home turf- Etnier is from Portland- don't even understand your music. Indeed, much of The Demo is deliberately obscure; Etnier's game is to keep you guessing. This record refuses to settle into any one groove, and its 17 cuts, some of which are songs and some of which qualify as mood pieces only, is an atmospheric montage of styles and ideas that emerges as a most beguiling and entertaining soundtrack of one artist's vision.
The Demo represents more than five years of work, ranging from Etnier's days with the underground group Granite Farm Band, through his tenure with the jazz-punk-satire group The Same Band, and his ongoing work with guitarist Mark Wainer of the Peter Gallway band. Since Etnier owned the Planet of the Tapes studio, The Demo also displays his preoccupation with the recording studio and its special effects: the mad scientist in his lab with an arsenal of keyboards, guitars, pedals and an eight-track. One could accuse Etnier of self-indulgence (what solo album isn't?), but his indulgences are food for the ears and head, and most of it works. Quirky, eclectic, spontaneous-sounding yet cleverly crafted, The Demo recalls the kind of playful psychedelia that came from Europe in the form of King Crimson, Soft Machine, and the early Pink Floyd or Genesis.
Etnier is forever throwing us curveballs. From the album's opener- an ominous, primordial synthesizer dirge called "March of the Kind Beasts"-we jump into a witty piece of psychedelia called "Genetic Engineering" with singer Andrea Re sweetly intoning "Have I told you the way they spliced my genes?". Then it's on to a quick tune of mock macho posturing- "You're the most attractive package"- and then into a couple of other atmospheric instrumentals.
One of these. "The Bore of Habilon", is quite lovely, a piano-based minor-key theme with Andrea Re again providing a beautiful melody that interleaves with the dreamy keyboard lines. Later on, Etnier uses Re to provide a smoky, Julie London-in-the-cabaret kind of ambience for some playful lounge-jazz that subtly transforms itself into something else.
And that's just a glimpse of side one. The element that provides consistency to all these off-the-wall changeabouts is Etnier's work on keyboards and guitars. They provide the backdrop for all the songs, creating miniature landscapes of sound that leave an unmistakable trademark throughout the album.
If The Demo has a major weakness, it's Etnier's vocals, which are not strong enough or sufficiently interesting to make you sit up and take notice of the often hilarious lyrics.
With The Demo, John Etnier has joined ranks with the likes of Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel and Todd Rundgren as a potent musical experimentalist who should not be ignored. Shame on Maine radio stations for not giving this album the attention it deserves.
Sweet Potato 10/27/82:
Rare is the occasion when one can find a musical package completely varied in direction and approach, with experimental risk at every turn. Big record companies insistent upon image and profit potential just don't allow that sort of artistic freedom. That is why John Etnier's The Demo, self-produced with Mark Wainer (Peter Gallway's Real Band), and pressed and distributed independently, makes for such engaging listening: it's a collection of 17 pieces so uncompromisingly outside of the mainstream, it resists labeling of any kind.
The Demo is as demanding a listening experience as any artist as any artist might aspire to create: it certainly is no party record or background filler. "Ambitious" would be the obvious tag- in layering the many instrumentals throughout each track, Etnier gives full value to even the slightest of colorations, be it a guitar track almost hidden in the mix, or a synthesizer piece way up front. Etnier manipulates space particularly well, assigning distinct ambiences and positions in the stereo spectrum to each element, thankfully avoiding the temptation to clutter the arrangement. Production values have been given as much consideration as the material itself, though rarely more than the piece requires.
Compositionally, Etnier flits between synthesizer-based sonic playgrounds and more band-oriented pop structures. Of the two, he achieves the greater success with his own instrumental soundscapes ("March Of The Kind Beasts," "Life In New York," "Demolition Tango," "Real Fear"), when the sum of the artist's parts congeal completely, moving with either frenetic quirkiness or somber moodiness. The lyrical pieces provide and interesting counterpoint, where vivid, often frightening imagery gives weight to pop themes musically beyond those typically deemed disposable. "Call Out The Dogs" and "Genetic Engineering," with guest vocalist Andrea Re, work best here. Etnier's voice on other cuts is listenable enough, but lacks the command of his other skills.
Particular mention must be made of Etnier's proficiency on keyboards and guitars. He has the ability to evoke any sort of feel, from the childlike piano plinking that closes "The West" to the ominous wall of synthesized tones in the opening cut, "March Of The Kind Beasts."
The nature of experimentation must allow for failure and, to be sure, The Demo has moments that both delight and perplex. Fortunately, there is enough fine listening on The Demo to intrigue many ears of any scope, and plenty to establish John Etnier as a daring and vital practitioner with unheralded vision.
Boston Rock #35:
A former member of Portland, Maine's avant punk-jazz Same Band, John Etnier released this album rather than dally with mere demo tapes. Top production standards and a formidably eclectic array of material display quite a bit of talent. Styles range from modern classical to pure pop. Who else do you know that could list Phillip Glass, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Taking Heads and Mamas & Papas as influences and truthfully claim, "I don't try to sound like anybody."
OP magazine "P" issue, 3/83:
Etnier himself doesn't appear sure whether this is a demo for prospective labels or an actual album, which is perhaps the biggest problem here. Seventeen tracks show everything from fusion jazz, rock with AOR leanings, noise, easy listening, experimental electronics and obnoxiously-cute college humor, geek pop. Twelve different musicians helped Etnier, but the most interesting tracks are the truly solo ones. He fares best on a handful of evocative late night electronic instrumentals, but The Demo ultimately shows too little focus, no real aim. A hard one to listen to all the way through no matter what your musical tastes.
Blake Gumprecht (0h well...)
Sound Choice, Spring 1986:
It's refreshing when people who really sound like they love to make music get onto vinyl. Etnier and friends aren't desperately trying to get commercial airplay- though much of the music has a distinct "pop" flavor. They use processed vocals, found sounds and lots of electronics, but it's all part of the music, not an artsy add-on. And although the group seems to draw a lot of inspiration from R. Stevie Moore's music and off-the-wall sense of humor, this is anything but a sound-alike album. The music goes from Eno-esque spaciness to King Crimson guitar acrobatics to a smooth, almost AOR sound, with a little cocktail piano jazz thrown in for good measure. These guys sound like they had a good time making the album.
Interview: Sweet Potato 8/18/82:
The spectrum of Maine musicians is pretty broad as microcosms go. There's rock, folk, punk, Top 40 and even some fine traditionalists So it shouldn't be surprising that there's also one who stands "outside" (a favored expression of his) of any sort of categorization. It's even less of a shock to discover that he was at the core of one of the state's most esoteric and sadly missed out fits, the Same Band.
His name is John Etnier and unless you have a remarkable memory for obscure bands of none-too-recent vintage, this will be the first time that he's been brought to your attention. There was Uncle Nub, his first band from high school days, which joined John with long-time partner and Real Band guitarist Mark Wainer. There was Balls, and the Granite Farm Band, a loose aggregation that gestated simultaneously with Balls and in which John and Mark were the only true musicians. From there evolved the explosive Same Band, which some consider Maine's most unique contribution to the world of music.
But it's been three years since the Same Band splintered which makes it very hard to market The Demo, an LP John (with a lot of help from Mark and a dozen or so friends) has spent that time recording. It's a record that's as varied as its namesake (a demo is a sort of sampler that prospective artists submit to record companies for consideration) is supposed to be, but without the blatant commerciality that such a package usually suggests. That's not to say that The Demo is totally inaccessible. It's just that the author has a wide open line of communication between his mind and his artistic heart.
"The music is not designed for easy assimilation," John claims as we lounge in his apartment studio, a boom mike hung between us. "I don't work on that level very easily. A lot of the pieces just sort of evolve according to and undefinable emotional state that I'm sort of bouncing off. I know that I'm making music that's difficult for people to grab the first time."
Do you have any specific ideas about what you'd like to happen to The Demo now?
"Well, I have no promotion budget at all because the record cost me more to make than I'd allowed. The art budget went right through the ceiling. And its potential for heavy local sales is very limited by the fact that the music is not hyper-commercial and by the fact that I don't play out any more. Not too many people know who I am. So now I'm trying to set up distribution packages with like Jem or Greenworld."
Does a distribution deal seem like a more attainable goal that radio play?
"I'd love to get radio play, but I'm not too sanguine about it. Radio programmers are so conservative now. But I'll be sending records to local radio stations, definitely Public Radio, WBCN, WNEW. Sort of spotting it. But I'm a little leery about getting heavily into an airplay push because it's something I'm not too familiar with how to do. I'd ideally like to sign with a major label and go back into the studio. There are some songs that I think I can do better than I've done on this record. There's a lot more stuff that I've worked on in the meantime that I'd like that chance to do in a real studio."
You must have spent a great deal of time in the studio already since the LP took three years to record?
"We never expected it to take that long. I know Mark didn't when he offered his assistance. 'Life in New York' was the first thing we finished in '79. We also had the rhythm tracks to 'Wonder Mice Skins', 'Engineering', 'Attractive Package', Big Jersey Fluke', 'The Desert Is A Bitch' and 'Call Out The Dogs.'
"That, by the way was Mark's greatest influence. He reined me in. This record would have been less accessible than it is. He saw to it that we had a solid rhythm section and paid some reference to the roots. Mark I think, is a great guitar player, but he has a second talent, and incredibly well-developed ear for production values; for arranging. He hears things that I tend to gloss over. I'm hoping that if nothing else, this record serves for Mark as something he could hand out and use for future work as a producer because I think he'd be a very good one.
Mark and a couple other people who helped you record The Demo: Rob Roy, also of the Real Band, and Andrea Re of Clouds are pretty familiar. Who are the rest of these people?
"Well, Mark's brother Joe played with us in the Same Band when he was like 15 or 16. He was in Dirty Laundry, he's in One Last Swing now. Also Quill. In fact, 'Engineering' was done by myself and Quill% Joe, Reggie Hunt on guitar and Dave Hill on bass.
"Joe is a pretty inventive drummer and Mark suggested that we use him for the more outside material and Steve Johnson for the really in-the-groove stuff. Steve was Peter Gallway's drummer before Perry Morin.
"Steve Blake was in the Outpatient Jazz Quartet and is now working in North Carolina. Mike Laskey and Mike Guimond were both with us in the Same Band. Joe Caragol is my brother-in-law from New York. He's not up very often, but he was when we recorded 'Fluke.' And Bob Patton, I needed a mandolin for 'The West' and he's an old friend, the nearest mandolin player I could find."
Some musicians figure their music is a statement unto itself and somehow suffers from being discussed. The actually get offended by analytical questions. Can we talk specifically about some of these songs?
"Sure I'd love to!"
Okay, how about a couple of the really obtuse numbers: "Real Fear" and "Shayla Fay." "Real Fear" (a heavily synthesized piece whose instrumental track gets more frenetic and vocal more hysterical as it progresses) certainly achieves the mood. But the lyrics are undecipherable. Is this drawn from childhood experience and why didn't you just sing it?
"I deliberately didn't print the lyrics to 'Real Fear' because I've felt a little strange about the piece since I did it. I wrote a set piece about a very violent situation. The thing about "when we were kids" was an attempt to evoke the feelings of strong inner terror you can get when you're a kid, like poltergeists; things in the closet. It wasn't a return to childhood. It was just an odd piece about physical and mental violence.
"In fact it was so violent that I considered mixing it without the lyrics. But it didn't hold together. I felt a little ambivalent about whether to even include the piece because it was so unsettling. But I figured it was such an unusual piece that for a demo like this where I'm trying to show people what I can do, I'd damn well better include it."
"Shayla Fay" is probably harder to fathom even with the lyrics.
"You have too look at it from two planes: the music and the lyrics. Remain In Light (a Talking Heads LP) had just come out and I got about halfway through the first side and I was so carried away with what they were doing that I took it off and just started fiddling around. That's the musical inspiration.
"The lyrics? Well, this is a little weird, but I'd seen a TV show about a French woman who wound up in a concentration, but before was a café singer. So I was originally intending to do a cop of a romantic French café song with words that didn't mean anything but sounded French.
"When I got the tape done for 'Shayla', I just grabbed this random list of words and started reading them with an American inflection. Then I got one of those three o'clock in the morning ideas to call long-distance operators in the deep south asking for Shayla Fay's phone number, which is what all the stuff at the beginning is."
Did you find her?
"Big Jersey Fluke" isn't so much impenetrable as it is ambiguous. I figured it could be a man, it could be a fruit. It could be a cow if you choose to interpret "Jersey" in that way. Or it could be say an organ. If it isn't asking too much could you reveal the true identity of the "Big Jersey Fluke?"
"Let me show you something."
(We adjourn to the studio, a room just off the living quarters where the interview is taking place. On the wall hangs a well-worn sign that reads "Big Jersey Fluke.")
"The story behind this is that my parents used to have a boat. We would go down the east coast every winter and bring it back up the intercoastal waterway in the spring, stopping in a lot of weird marinas along the way. This sign belonged to a commercial fishing outfit in New Jersey.
"Apparently, the fluke is a big game fish, actually a large flounder. I was in Uncle Nub at the time and the words- 'Big Jersey Fluke' on one side and 'Fluke All Day' on the other- just caught. I took the sign home and wrote 'Big Jersey Fluke' a few weeks later. That's where it comes from but as far as the song is concerned it's some sort of mythological, undefined something or other."
We've sort of touched on this a couple of times, but who are the other people who've had an influence on what you're doing?
"Well in the old days, Zappa and Beefheart were very heavy. Today, Peter Gabriel, I think. is dynamite. The new Gang Of Four record is incredible. They're getting heavily into backup vocals and sound sort of like the Mamas & Papas. I thought Generation X was an incredible band
"The Art Ensemble Of Chicago had a tremendous influence on me and all the people in the Granite Farm Band. When Marion Brown was teaching at Bowdoin in those days we knew him. One day I went up to him and said; 'I really want to join AACM and hang around with those guys.' And he looked at me in this very patient and sort of tolerant way and said, 'This is an organization exclusively for black musicians and I think you're going to have a very hard time out there.'" (Laughter)
The social outlook of "The Bore of Habilon" and "Demolition Tango," the instrumentation itself- it all seems very future-oriented, very modern in terms of the people we're talking about. Even the lyric of the LP's last cut, "The West" points that way:"I told you about the how Western Slim is a brand/ that I won't buy./ As fetishes go and grow and grow/ So do I/ So do I"
"I think that maybe you're reading more into it than is there. 'The West' and 'Prologue: The West,' which is the last song on side 1, occupy the same piece of tape, depending on which tracks you play. I did 'Prologue' aiming at a Phillip Glass, minimalist type of thing, a lot of patterns: about eight piano tracks. I got finished and it didn't really accomplish what I was trying to do.
"So I started adding guitar tracks and getting this doo-de doo-doo western thing. Next thing I knew I was adding harmonicas and getting even more western. But the lyrics were just a stream-of-consciousness thing and I sort of feel Reagan in there, but it wasn't conscious.
Still the album seems to be forward-looking in terms of where all things are going
"It's interesting you should say that because one of the fun things about this record is sending it our to my friends and relatives and getting their reactions. My father is an artist and he has been a strong influence me because as an artist, you develop an ethos, you learn to be true to yourself. And he said the one thing he carried out of the record more than anything else was a sense of the future and; he felt- a sense of despair about the future. It's something I didn't set out to do and I'm still not sure I did do this. But other people seem to perceive this.
Perhaps someone like your father would see the way he did because the subjects about which your wrote are not very positive within his frame of reference, coming from a mid-20th century upbringing.
"That's probably true. But about the future I don't; know what to day. Personally, I've already begun work on another record. I've also started paying Mark for his production efforts by doing a Wainer Brothers record with both Mark and Joe. But if a year or two down the road I have enough stuff to fill an album and enough money to record it, I'll press it and release it independently. I'm just not interested in doing any music that doesn't do something new or original. I don't like trying to sound like somebody else."