Q & A with Poster Children’s Rick Valentin
September 20, 2016
Indie rock band Poster Children, which formed at the University in 1987, will be returning to Champaign for the Pygmalion Festival. They will be playing this Friday night from 8:15-9:00 p.m. at the Accord Outdoor Annex Stage 2. This year, Poster Children will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the release of their second album “Daisy Chain Reaction”. Lead singer and songwriter, Rick Valentin, shares his insight on being apart of the major rock scene in Champaign during the late ’80s, and how it’s reflected in the band’s upcoming performance.
DI: Did you grow up in the Champaign-Urbana area?
R: No, Rose (Valentin) and I were Chicago suburban kids who moved down to Champaign to go to the U of I when we were undergrads.
DI: How was Poster Children originally formed?
R: Well, Rose and I started a band in Allen Hall, [laughs], and it was called The Evidence, and we were in a couple of dorm bands before that, but we had gotten a new drummer and changed the name to Poster Children. As the band changed members, we just stopped changing the name. So our origin is we were like a ‘dorm band’–we played in Allen Hall, and then just kinda moved out, had a band house where Spurlock Museum is now — there was an old Victorian house where a bunch of people in bands lived — and we just kind of went from there.
DI: What sparked your initial interest, or desire, to even start a band?
R: It was the mid-eighties, so it was kind of the transition from punk-rock to indie-rock. There were bands like Husker Du and The Replacements, and labels like SST, and Twin Tone Records and Homestead Records–there were these small independent labels and small independent bands that toured around the US that were making records outside the mainstream music scene. That whole world that Nirvana exploded out of, that was what was going on, and so the idea of being able to start a band and be a part of that scene and start playing, and then go to Chicago and play a show for 30 people, and then go to Iowa city and play a show, and then go to Minneapolis, and go to Indianapolis, and that kind of idea, you know, don’t wait for someone to notice you – go out there and make connections and play with other local bands from other local scenes and bring them in. It was in the air at that time, where it was literally alternative, but what people call alternative rock. Like a kind of sound, it was more than just an alternative to the big rock scene that seemed completely inaccessible at the time. It was like, ‘Oh wait! There’s another way – if you like music, you can play music,’ and it was permission to do that.
DI: You mentioned when you started playing with other bands, when the band began touring, what was your favorite thing about traveling the country? What do you think will be most different with this year’s tour, following the Pygmalion Festival?
R: I think the biggest thing I realized what I loved about touring was that you could leave town for six weeks or two months and pretty much just leave everything behind. We were a completely self-contained unit – we talked to our booking agent, we called the clubs and everything like that, and maybe we’d see somebody from home on tour, but you could just escape your everyday life for this huge chunk of time. I could read gigantic long books because I had nothing else to do for eight hours on the van, and I realize now … the idea of escaping and kind of being in your own little world as a band, and playing these shows; that doesn’t exist anymore. You’re constantly connected, and we’re all gonna be on our phones in the van, and we’re all going to be able to keep track of everything and keep on top of stuff. And if we don’t want to, real life will still be there.
DI: What was it like having your band be picked up by Reprise Records, which was part of Warner Bros. Records, early on in Poster Children’s life?
R: We had been around for five years, but it was a little weird. We had started talking to some big labels around the time our second record was coming out, and when that came out, it was the same time that Nirvana’s second album came out. When we were on tour everything changed. We were talking to a couple major labels before that happened, and everyone’s perspective was that bands like Husker Du had moved to a major label and The Replacements had moved to a major label, but they hadn’t exploded. The bands just kind of went up to another level. Some bands it destroyed, some bands it didn’t. While we were on tour, we talked to a few labels that we liked and that seemed to care about artists. But then by the end of our tour, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit. Like 15 or 20 labels were just like, ‘Any weird college band we’re gonna sign, we’re gonna throw money at.’ I think that was the strangest thing, which was that things had changed almost overnight where people perceived bands like us as being profitable and could make money, but we were like ‘eh, I’m not sure that’s really true … ’ We were suspicious. We wound up choosing, and actually at the time it was Sire Records who was part of Reprise Records – it was very complicated – but Sire Records was a label that I had loved and loved the artists on it, and it seemed to care about bands even if they didn’t sell a huge number of records. So we wound up going with them, and it was really great until once the money started disappearing as the 90’s progressed, and people (in record companies) started realizing that these weren’t making money, but also that they didn’t want to support these weird, little bands in addition to big hit bands.
DI: How does it feel to be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the album “Daisy Chain Reaction”?
R: It’s weird cause I don’t feel that old, it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long, but it’s kind of neat because it’s given me a chance to go back and listen to our songs. We’ve been relearning a lot of the songs, and I don’t do that normally, but I don’t think many people who are in bands go back and listen to old stuff … In some ways it’s like having to look at your high school yearbook photo, but in other ways, you forget about some of the discomfort or whatever you had at the time. And after 25 years, that gets a little more nostalgic when you look back on it. I actually go ‘Oh wow, that’s the way we wrote songs. Maybe I don’t have to do it this way, I can try what we used to do back then.’ You kind of fall into different habits or change in ways you approach things – it’s just a way to look back and say, ‘You know what? This worked, even though it’s completely different than the way we do things now.’
DI: Speaking of your writing process, what are some forms of inspiration that you’ve turned to when writing lyrics for songs?
R: Unfortunately, a lot of times it’s kind of social and political environment of the time … sometimes maybe I get a little too obsessed with the way things are. That’s another thing I can look back on with “Daisy Chain Reaction,” because there’s some of that, but there’s also more abstract stuff. I think a lot times it’s just simply being upset with the way things are going in the world, and simple questions of why are things happening the way they are, where are there certain injustices … Things like that–it sounds pretentious–but it just gets me upset. Honestly writing more personal songs would be a minefield cause my wife and brother are in the band, so for me to explore highly personal, or emotional, subject matter would be really difficult. They’d be like ‘Ooh is he talking about me?’ I would be writing about politics as somebody would say ‘is that about me?’
DI: Over the years, Poster Children went through multiple drummers. How did this change the overall sound of the band?
R: Pretty much since the beginning of the band, we’ve played together. Somebody might have a riff, and then we’d start working it out as whole band, and build the music collectively, and then I’d just add the lyrics and melody on top. When you do something like that, every time you have a new member of the band, it’s gonna have a pretty big effect on the way the song sounds. Every time we had a new member, it kind of rewires the way we write music a little bit, because we’d use the same method, but you’re still bringing in a new perspective to play off of. It’s actually pretty organic because it’s almost easier to change and have a member leave and a new one come in than it is to have the same four people and try to force change even though everybody has already developed their own habits.
DI: As momentum picked up for Poster Children, what were some ways you stayed true to your individualism as an artist?
R: I think that was core to our existence, kind of going back to that indie-rock era right before the whole ‘grunge thing’ happened. We really grew out of that idea of making music that we liked, and being in a scene for bands that were making music for each other and for the ‘scene,’ rather than for commercial reasons. We started out in a small environment where the stakes were not that high. The goal was not to get on MTV or to get a hit song; that was unrealistic. Honestly, I don’t think we ever wrote music that necessarily would’ve gotten there. That’s why I always say it’s easy to maintain your ideals if no one is throwing millions of dollars at you. It’s that idea that really early on we realized. We’d seen other bands we liked, that maybe had gone through signing to a major label, and had made a really great record, but then wound up fighting with each other, even having money problems … all sorts of things can happen that throw your focus away from making music. And at least for me, one of my goals was always that at the end of my life, I still want to play music, so I don’t want to do anything that’s gonna ruin it for me. I don’t know why that happened, but we were lucky enough to have that perspective as a band pretty early on. We never felt at the end of the day, even when something went wrong, that it was somebody else’s fault. We were just always kind of making sure that the band, and even more purely playing music, didn’t get ruined. It didn’t get too much of a job or a business. I don’t want to say that we didn’t pay attention to the business side, but I guess what we didn’t do was we didn’t make purely business, or critical decisions, based on money. We made them based on whether it was gonna do us any good, and are we gonna be happy with ourselves afterwards as artists.
DI: In general, what are some changes to the music scene in Champaign that you have noticed, specifically since you’ve attended college?
R: I lived in Champaign for about 25 or 30 years, and at the time when we were first starting out, our group of friends and bands we were with grew and changed and had success and some had failures, and then things kind of went down a bit. It was like ‘aw things were better back in 1987,’ and things like that. But then [the music scene] came back, and I think about 10 or 15 years into it, I realized it was a cycle. Things change and go through cycles; there are certain things that are different about this time or this peak of the cycle, but there are certain things that are the same and you realize it ebbs and flows. Even talking to people who were in the scene in the early 1980s, or the ’70s, even the late ’60s, you realize the music scene (in Champaign) has kind of always been a real fertile ground of musicians. It doesn’t get the hype like Seattle did, or even Chicago, or Athens, Georgia – all these scenes that sort of grew up and a couple of iconic artists come out of them, and then kind of disappear. Champaign hasn’t necessarily had that huge recognition. Even somebody like REO Speedwagon, nobody’s gonna say “That’s a Champaign band.” If you go back and look at how many bands have made great music in Champaign, it hasn’t been a five-year or 10-year thing, it’s been like a 40- or 50-year thing, and that’s just people who are still alive. For all I know, it could’ve been like that in the ’60s, and so there’s something about Champaign where, regardless of the up’s and down’s, there’s something that really fosters and nurtures creative individual and group musicians.
DI: How has your personal music taste evolved throughout the years?
R: I’m laughing because I worry sometimes that it hasn’t evolved, but a lot of times you do stick to that. Again, that’s what’s interesting about this 25th anniversary, because it’s like how much different are my ideas about music, now that they were 25 years ago? For a lot of people, when you’re 20, that’s kind of the music that really defines you, especially if you love music. The biggest change is that I think I’ve fallen into the same trap that maybe everyone has fallen into, which is that since everything is accessible now, I can go back and, instead of listening to new music, I can find a band from 1985 or 1987 that I didn’t know about then. All of a sudden, I find out about them or I find out about a band from 1972 that no one has heard of, and I’ll just dig into that. I think what’s changed is that, in some ways, it’s harder for me to listen to new music as much, because there’s so much other music that is accessible to me. It’s a beautiful thing, and I love that I can really dig deep now into any era, but it means that I’m not helping new musicians as much as I should. Then again … I was there in the 1980s, I was at every show, I was buying every record, but that was my job then. Now, my job is to talk and say ‘aw it was so much better back in the old days.’ I think the magical thing about the digital world now is that you can find out about a new band halfway across the world, or halfway across the state, that you might not have heard of back 25 or 30 years ago, just because they were isolated.
DI: If you could sit down and have a drink with your favorite rocker or musician, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
R: I don’t know if it’s cheesy or not, but I think someone like Lou Reed, who really bridged the gap between art and rock ‘n’ roll. He walked a really interesting line, and I think people kind of dismissed some of his later work, or some of his stranger stuff. The reality is that he did a pretty amazing combination of roles throughout his career, and did walk that line between art and rock, without ever seeming to be a totally pretentious rocker. Maybe he did at some points in time, but I think he’d be a really interesting person to talk to. I’ve also heard many reports that he was an awful person to talk to, and he really wouldn’t have been interested in talking about any of that stuff. I think what I would love to do is sit down talk to somebody who knew him on a personal level, but not him directly. I’d love to have some insight on what he was like as an everyday person.