Ace Farren Ford‘s impact on the Los Angeles music scene, and later on the world stage, will not be underestimated. Long known to his cohorts that were central to the orbit of Los Angeles Free Music Society, Ace has spread his influence far and wide, exploring everything from free music and noise to punk parody and sound absurdity in formats such as guerrilla recordings and found sounds. What follows here is only a taste of his experiences, from his friendship with Don Van Vliet and remembrances of the earliest incarnations of Smegma, to anecdotes about Timothy Leary, Robert Hunter and Crowbar Salvation opening a gala for George Bush Sr. You can visit his site and track him down via Facebook for any inquiries about his art and music, and to support him. And you can catch up with him at Purple Panther Tattoo where he works.
Thank you, Ace Farren Ford!
The Early Years
DECAYKE: You have a really rich history in the L.A. music scene. Are you from there originally?
Ace: I was born January 14, 1957 at Queen of Angels Hospital, Los Angeles. Seldom left it since, and only to look around and make noises. My father was a jazz musician, trumpet player (I have and still abuse his trumpet), so I was lucky enough to be exposed to different musics early. He had a quartet who rehearsed in our living room when I was a wee lad.
I also had a young uncle who played me blues records and such when I was first listening to rock and roll, so therein laid the foundation. He too had bands I loved to watch rehearse — surf band in the early 60’s, various folk rock and psychedelic bands and finally Jazz rock bands, eventually forming one with my father.
DECAYKE: See, you’ve got your fingers up there in so many sky pies I had to go back to the beginning to know where to start. What was the band with your dad like?
Ace: It was a quartet. He played trumpet and the group consisted of an upright bass, trap kit drummer and a tenor player. I must have been only five or six and, if I would behave myself, I could stay up past bed time to watch them play in our living room. It was basically straight ahead jazz. He was really into Miles.
DECAYKE: And you mentioned a band that you formed with your father? Was that music in the same vein?
Ace: I did not form a band with my father. My uncle, (mother’s younger brother) did. It was in 1970, called All Your Life, [and] my uncle played electric bass, then my father, plus there was a tenor, an alto player and a keyboardist. They also did a lot of Miles covers, Herbie Hancock, some
DECAYKE: And you mentioned a band that you formed with your father? Was that music in the same vein?
Ace: I did not form a band with my father. My uncle, (mother’s younger brother) did. It was in 1970, called All Your Life, [and] my uncle played electric bass, then my father, plus there was a tenor, an alto player and a keyboardist. They also did a lot of Miles covers, Herbie Hancock, some Ornette Coleman & Archie Shepp…first time I had heard any of their stuff, which influenced me heavily.
Coleman and Archie Shepp…first time I had heard any of their stuff, which influenced me heavily.
Ace: They were not really playing free jazz, but they introduced me to the music of those who did. That was when I really got heavy into free jazz stuff and began exploring sheep. Shepp…damn! Not Sheep for crying out loud.
–Interviewer wonders about mistakes as a creative assets, leaves the typo in. it was merely a typo. Ace is about as reverent as anyone you would meet about the dedication and sincerity of the musicians and artists he loves. Since this, like other DECAYKE interviews, are less formal and intended to be read as conversations, i.e. with flaws included, we left the above in. –ed.
DECAKE: Was there any one recording that you recall that was the wallop that influenced you most? Om? Ornette’s Free Jazz? You said something about Shepp, so Fire Music? Or was it more of just the revelation that you could write the rules yourself. That reality was plastic.
Ace: First, Ornette’s New York Is Now!, and Archie’s The Magic of JuJu, [but] it hadn’t occurred to me to play this sort of thing just yet, although I had also started listening to Captain Beefheart and, after reading an interview with Don, I decided to play free music. My melting into free music occurred in 1970.
DECAYKE: So that would have dovetailed into the embryonic days of LAFMS. Who else that would eventually become involved on some level with LAFMS happened to be moving in the same direction as yourself at that time? Did you connect with any of those folks then or did that come later?
“I am an “Artificial Artist” because I am artistically illiterate. I have no real training in music or art or literature. I have always felt that academic artists are the ones who get art dealers and end up in prestigious galleries and museums. I am ghetto in this aspect.”
Ace: I was good friends with the Professor (Duce) who went with me to each Beefheart show he played in town. We formed Ace & Duce in 1971 and just did a lot of playing and recording among ourselves. I met many of the folk who were to become LAFMS and Smegma within the next couple years. Tom Recchion worked at Poo-Bah Records in Pasadena, and soon we were playing nights, i.e after hours at Poo-Bah. This is when it (LAFMS) began to grow into the Beast it was to become.
Also, Dennis Duck also worked at Poo-Bah. I have said before that Poo-Bah was sort of a Lonely Hearts Club for improvising non-musicians. Jay Green, the original owner would say, “Hey, this guy is also buying Beefheart and Sun Ra records, you should talk to him!” So this is how I met the Smegma folk and the core members of LAFMS. That was 1972 to and in 1974, I joined Smegma.
DECAYKE: So there was the core of LAFMS fomenting around you and Duce, Tom Recchion and Poo-Bah then. Things were blowing up and Beefheart was the catalyst. Did you happen to meet Don Van Vliet and form your friendship with him from attending those shows at this time?
Ace: I met Don at the first Beefheart show Duce and I attended at the Fox theater in Long Beach on March 10th 1972, although Don and I didn’t really get to be friends until 1975.
DECAYKE: Okay, so we’ll get back around to Don in a few. Besides yourself, who was Smegma at that point and how long was it before you played your first gig?
Ace: Smegma formed in 1973, They gave me a cassette in December of that year, the first recording that had ever left their realm. It was called The Smegma Christmas Album. They were Ju Suk Reet Meate, Chucko Fatts, Amyzon Bambi, Cheezit Ritz, & Cheesebro and Dennis Duck.
I joined Smegma in January of 1974. Later that year we all drove up to San Francisco to see Sun Ra live for the first time. After that we saw just about every west coast performance we could. It was Jay Green who introduced me to Sun Ra when Space is the Place came out, and although I did have the Sun Ra esp-disk albums already, it was after that I was hooked. I also heard Harry Partch records then. A lot of stuff exploded for me at this time.
As far as Smegma’s first gig, if you wanna call it that, was called the Smegma Coming Out Party Joke, and it was a
cotillion party at the Smegma house. Ace & Duce played, and then Smegma.
DECAYKE: How would you describe the reaction?
Ace: Our friends were shocked and aghast. Then came a gig at Poo-Bah. I still have the hand-made poster for it that Dennis Duck made. Ace & Duce opened that set too and that was also in 1974. Then we played Coronado in San Diego to raise money for MD.
DECAYKE: You do mean muscular dystrophy?
Ace: Yes, and there was a rumor we were to go on local television to play, but we played three sets in the afternoon, evening and were too worn out to try to appear at 3 A.M. on TV, so we returned to L.A. after that.
DECAYKE: Now I can’t imagine why, but you claim that people were “shocked and aghast.” Do you admit that a sort of prankster spirit has always guided you and your cohorts?
Ace: I would hate to say so, but it is probably true.
DECAYKE: And the Party Joke, did that include theatrics, costumes and cacophony or was it pretty much just the sound that just flipped your friends and the audience out?
Ace: Mainly just sound. We were only just beginning.
DECAYKE: And a kiss for luck and you were on your way. Was there a conscious effort being made to get under people’s skin? To give ’em the willies?
Ace: Not exactly, but we were trying to do music without necessarily being musicians and that alone pretty much did it back then. I, at only 17, found being repellent amusing. I always felt socially awkward, being given the space to become even more physically and audibly awkward than I even felt made it less of a personal issue for me. I was the youngest member of the group and the first from the “outside” the core members. They were only a month or two into being my favorite band, doing just what I was trying to do and with some sort of flair that grabbed me.
DECAYKE: There’s a sort of sense you get when listening to the early incarnations of the Smegma and LAFMS stuff (well, it runs through it all) that alienation was central to the vibe. Alienation to the hippy thing which was bought and sold by that point, alienation on another social level, that feeling of being a misfit, so it follows that getting and giving ‘the willies’ seems to be a natural impulse to have had.
The other side of that coin for the listener is, of course, ‘Hey, I’m not the only weirdo around.’ But instead of solely emphasizing the alienation aspect of it like later bands or collectives did, you men and women emphasized the humor and absurdity of your music and existence as a whole. That said, how would you describe the difference between Smegma and Ace and Duce at that point?
Ace: Humor was always key for us somehow…in some cases, it was the one thing that could grab someone who was having trouble getting past the concept that we couldn’t play our instruments.
Ace & Duce was trying to emulate and expand upon Beefheart music, only trying to loosen it into more a free jazz feel. We failed on many levels. Rick Snyder was the only real musician we had (and he later was to be a member of Beefheart’s band). We were sort of all over the place, whereas Smegma was more organic. Even when trying to be a rock band Smegma was always Smegma. I was a teenager in charge of Ace & Duce. It lacked maturity. Not that Smegma was much older but I was a terribly obnoxious youth. Somehow Smegma found a use for this.
DECAYKE: Well I reckon.
Ace: I don’t know how Smegma put up with me. Of course, I was somewhat oblivious to just how hideously obnoxious I was, but they took me in, liked what I did for some reason and were quite kind and very patient with me. They brought something into my life that has stayed with me always . They became a family to me. I still feel this way.
I was only in the band, living with them, actively playing and recording for a year-and-a half before they decided to relocate to Oregon. Yet it was so intense and we did so much in that short time that I remember it like it lasted 20 years. That said, it was not the end of my playing with them. It just became less often and different in its nature.
DECAYKE: So how did things continue to coalesce around LAFMS?
Ace: When Tom Recchion brought the LP Le Forte Four Bikini Tennis Shoes, it was soon thereafter we all joined forces (in 1975), almost immediately after the bulk of Smegma had relocated to Oregon. Dennis and I decided to stay in L.A. For me, it was mainly because I wanted to continue to make music with my best friend Rick Snyder. The newly united LAFMS core, then Le Forte Four, The Doo-Dooettes and Ace & Duce celebrated its formation in January of 1976.
DECAYKE: So would ya’ say there was a tangible sense by that time that it was all coming together?
Ace: We (Tom Recchion et al) discussed it, but I am not sure what expectations we might have had. We did feel like this was a good thing. It seemed like some sort of destiny, silly as that may sound.
Don Van Vliet
DECAYKE: So circling back around to Don Van Vliet and your relationship with him and how that developed…
Ace: Well, as I said, I met Don in person in March of ’72. I was 15 and trying to start a “fan club” for Don through Warner Bros. I was calling and talking to Warner execs. almost daily. They all thought it was a keen idea, yet it never happened. Then in ’75 when I had a wee entourage drive out to Lancaster to visit him. Rick Snyder also came, which developed into him joining the Magic Band five years down the road. To my good fortune, Don decided to befriend me rather than call the cops on the carload of teenage stalkers.
“I cannot agree with the idea of striving toward a synthesis of anything, all I have done in the creative sense has been a method of survival, a way of not bowing to insanity or a desire to expire. Painting, collage, writing, music, all efforts to make my own personal world tolerable, as I have always found little about the world tolerable.”
He (Don Van Vliet) later told me, “You know why that fan club thing never happened, don’t you?”
“No Don,” I replied, “Why?”
“Because fan clubs are laaaaaaaaaaaaaaame. You aren’t a ‘fan’, you understand what I’m doing here.”
Ace: Don was an artist I identified with hard. I looked up to him. I wanted to know him as a person and he sort of took me in like a big brother. He was really very kind to me in the years we were friends.
DECAYKE: Don went on to become a pretty successful visual artist. You do art and collages, too. Were you doing them then? Can you tell us a little bit about how, to your mind, visual art intersects with sound, if at all?
Ace: I have been doing visual art fairly seriously since I was five, which ate up a lot of time I should have spent being a child. But then being an artist is sort of like being a child irresponsibly.
[To your earlier question] I cannot agree with the idea of striving toward a synthesis of anything. All I have done in the creative sense has been a method of survival, a way of not bowing to insanity or a desire to expire. Painting, collage, writing, music, all efforts to make my own personal world tolerable, as I have always found little about the world tolerable.
DECAYKE: I couldn’t agree more with you about the world, but what do you mean by being a child irresponsibly? Do you mean that your childhood should be used to groom you to produce and be a product?
Ace: No, meaning the act of being an artist is like irresponsibly being a child permanently. Being an artist instead of being a child meant I took being an artist seriously when I should not have been serious at all which, oddly enough, I’m seldom serious about anything now.
The Child Molesters
DECAYKE: So you were all topsy-turvy. In retrospect that makes perfect sense. I know you’ve been involved in a lot more than just LAFMS. Since we’re talking mid-late 70’s, when did the Child Molesters enter the picture? That history is a little murky, too, with the bootleg legend and all. Can you tell us a little about that?
Ace: The concept for the Child Molesters came to me in 1975.
The band began in 1977 and lasted until 1982. All that time I also was with the South Pasadena Free Music Ensemble, and Ace & Duce. So during that time I put out two compilations for LAFMS and most of the members of the Child Molesters eventually became the Mystery Band.
DECAYKE: Maybe, but it sounded really good. I think your parody surpassed the source material.
Ace: Thank you, that may well be the nicest thing i have ever heard about that band.
DECAYKE: We’re full of surprises here at the HQ. Like, um, what about Crowbar Salvation? Did you know Marty Nation for a while…how did that all come together. That’s a rabid record. Kind of flew under the radar.
Ace: I went to school with Hermann Senac, knew him for years and I had been hanging out with the band Blood on the Saddle that he was playing with [at the time]. He kept telling me I should see the other band he was playing with, Crowbar (the Salvation came later, at my suggestion). I had no interest in seeing Crowbar because the singer and I had shared a mutual ex-girlfriend, Candye Kane, and I had no interest in meeting him. Both Candye and Hermann used to tell me, “You’ll love Marty. You guys will be great friends!” I figured they were both full of shit. Not only that, for years I had a crush on Lydia Lunch, another ex of the Rev. Marty Nation.
Well, I finally saw them and met Marty. They were right of course. Almost immediately after this, their original bass player left to join Legal Weapon, and I was in. It was a great, fun band, even led to the strangest gig I have ever played. I was in Crowbar Salvation from 1986 until 1992.
DECAYKE: What was the strangest gig? I’m thinking it had to be pretty fucked up to weirder than a lot of the other shows you’ve played.
Ace: Crowbar Salvation once opened for the president of the United States. I swear this is true, no shit. (This woulda’ been when George Bush was president, that first asshole.)- ed.
DECAYKE: Spill it! Was Barb there too?
Ace: Marty had a hair salon in Venice, CA and he was on the Chamber of Commerce, too. George Sr. was making an appearance in Venice to give some old geezer what he called a “Point of Light” award, so the Chamber was putting together local entertainment for the festivities. Marty said “I have a band…”
“Wonderful,” they replied.” Crowbar Salvation played a song called Pig in front of a dozen secret service men, with S.W.A.T. team snipers on every other rooftop in the neighborhood. It was the most surreal gig I ever played, like at 9 A.M, and no mention of this on the Six O’Clock news that evening.
DECAYKE: I do have to say…Marty being a part of the Chamber of Commerce? That just sounds messed up, Ace! We all watched him fist fuck Lydia Lunch. “Lookie lookie lookie, nice fresh nookie,” and all that. Heh.
But that show, [all the crazy happenings] was one of my faves. We had to be there at some horrible hour like 8 A.M. We went down there and had to set our equipment up on some family’s lawn, after which we had to leave for an hour or so, so I assume they could determine that there were no bombs or weapons concealed in our drums and amplifiers. When we returned they had the street blocked off on both sides, and had makeshift metal detectors and a police line we had to pass through to get back in.
I was using the name Ace Farren Ford, as I had for many years, but at that time I had not yet legally changed it. When I saw I would have to have I.D. to get in, I asked Marty “What name did you give them for me on the list?”
I repeated myself, “Marty, that isn’t my legal name. I don’t have I.D. in that name.”
Marty replied, “Don’t worry about it…”
When I got to the metal detector, a man in a black suit with shades and a wire in his ear asked for my name and my identification. I told him “Ace Farren Ford.” He looked at my I.D. and waved me through, which led to the zen-like question in my mind, ‘Are the FBI not nearly as thorough as one would guess for such occasions, or are they so thorough, that they were already aware that i was using that name professionally…?’
DECAYKE: So as far as you could tell, what were the reactions to Crowbar Salvation’s music like?
Ace: No way to know. After we played our one song, some Secret Service guys herded us across the street behind a picket line, where we were interviewed by many media folks, who I gather were later instructed not to mention the unruly rock band in the paper or on TV, as there was no mention of us whatsoever.
DECAYKE: The fuckers disappeared Crowbar Salvation. Speaking of power, let’s talk about some of the underlying bits about the music and art you do since we’ve gotten around to this point. You mentioned that there isn’t much to like about this world. Would you say that there’s a political or economic subconscious underpinning what you do? Not an agenda per se, but a response to an increasingly oppressive system?
Ace: No, I would not say this at all. All of my “creative” endeavors serve one purpose: to keep me alive. I would have suicided [sic] out many years ago had I not these outlets. Writing, painting, collage and music have given some meaning to my existence, however vague. I don’t know exactly how to describe their healing abilities, but they have somehow given me the strength to endure what would otherwise be unendurable for me.
DECAYKE: [Art] is a way back to the world for you?
Ace: A way to simply be able to put up with it. However, in the last 18 years I also have the miracle of children who have also given me cause to endure. It has been a very good experience for me. I have had the pleasure of making music and art with them as well. Mars plays with me in the Artificial Art Ensemble, and last year I released a single which featured an ensemble called Fried Turkey. All three of my sons are on it and Rose has performed with the AAE for our first show, but she isn’t too into the noise scene. She does sing occasionally, but has gone into tattooing.
DECAYKE: Can you elaborate a little on the idea of “artificial art?”
Ace: I am an “Artificial Artist” because I am artistically illiterate. I have no real training in music or art or literature. I have always felt that academic artists are the ones who get art dealers and end up in prestigious galleries and museums. I am ghetto in this aspect. I have low self-esteem,or so I am told, even though I feel I think I am about as nifty as I can be. But this process, the things I have done and created have certainly kept me from cutting my own throat many times and allowed me to become a parent. I don’t think I am a good parent (as I would like to be), but all my children seem to love me and think fairly highly of me, [When I compare that] to my opinion of my self, that’s a considerable difference. I feel like my accomplishments in art and music have sneaked under the wire of the powers that be who may step up and claim it is totally invalid. (or usurp it for future profit, ed.)
DECAYKE: You were definitely part of the movement – around the world as it turns out – that carved out a spot for unschooled artists. How important is invention in art and music as opposed to simply being accomplished? And is that a valuable message, in your mind, to send to everyone that anyone can do this, that you don’t need a certificate of approval or validation from those powers.
Ace: Well, to my eyes and ears invention is far more important than being accomplished or a virtuoso. I have run into many great musicians who were lost the moment they had to improvise. One of the reasons I got into free music was that I had heard many folks say they loved music and wished they could play it. At first it was a sort of crusade to put music into the hands of its most primitive creators, but not as much anymore. I have enjoyed playing with great musicians and complete non-musicians. As I am not accomplished in either art or music, invention is all I have.
DECAYKE: And you also have a lot of material of found sounds or recordings of conversations that add texture (and often humor) to your recordings. Most musician-minded fellers like to remove those kinds of audio artifacts, but you often left those in and sorta foreshadowed the whole lo-fi thing. LAFMS did a lot of that kind of it. Was that intentional, just the economics of the situation? A little of both?
Ace: Always intentional. In the days of the Child Molesters, we recorded a song where I had a guitar solo (again intentional, I can’t play guitar). After my solo was finished the engineer called me into the booth.
“We have to re-take your solo [because] your guitar chord has a bad ground. Half the solo cuts out to a terrible noise.
“Leave it in,”I told him. He also suggested, because I was not a singer, that I put a little reverb on my voice. I have done that only once in all my years as a vocalist and that was because I didn’t know the lyrics and intentionally mumbled.
DECAYKE: How conscious were you of what was happening in Japan in the earlier days of their noise or psych scene…and how did you and the others associated with LAFMS end up networking with them?
Ace: My awareness of any sort of scene similar to ours was nearly non-existent for some years. [I was] really was quite blind and uninformed for decades and I guess I only began to realize it after the box set came out in 1996. I don’t know how I didn’t hear about anything, I only heard some vague rumor about someone championing us in Japan, a man named Takuya. There was a sort of period of time when I was not in close contact with a lot of my LAFMS colleagues. A lot of us sort of drifted in different directions for awhile.
DECAYKE: It’s interesting to think of how such disparate cultures could be paralleling each other in sound exploration the way ours and Japan’s has. But that begs the question of how we arrive at certain conclusions about what the next step may be, how we’re informed and if there are really mutual influences at play. That said, would you say that you created your stuff in a kind of vacuum (mostly intuition) or was what you were doing the next logical step for free music after avant rock and free jazz? Seems like you could almost make the assumption that it was a little of both at the same time, though Coltrane once said “We all dip from the same well.”
Ace: It must be like Trane said. I am a totally intuitive guy. Beefheart first pointed me in the direction of free music. I once spent an afternoon with Tim Leary, after talking with him for some hours I remarked to him how astonished I was that we got on so naturally and easily, as if we had known each other for years rather than having just met. “We’re all on the same trip,” was his reply. Similar to Trane, but obviously more Learyesque. No, definitely no vacuum thing. I am sure I have influences all over the place, but I sort of exist with blinders. I don’t pay much attention to the big picture. I look very closely at the tiniest of things.
DECAYKE: How did you know Leary?
Ace: I used to work for an extremely large record collection that was going up for sale in the early 90’s, The Grateful Dead were considering buying it so they had sent Leary and Robert Hunter to check it out. I spent some hours touring them through it.
DECAYKE: Wow. I remember once Hunter claiming to be a part of MKULTRA…but we won’t get off on that. I will ask, though, if LSD or other hallucinogenic substances were especially important in your artistic development? Those things tend to help us look very closely at the tiniest of things.
Ace: I would say no. I did LSD and various other drugs over the decades, but never felt they enhanced any creative notions. My mother threw me out at 15, having found and destroyed some years of [my] paintings, collages and writing, claiming to know enough about art that no one could make art like I did without being on drugs. That might have been what led me to begin experimenting with them, but I was already thinking pretty abstractly before ever using drugs. I never spoke to my mom again.
DECAYKE: Now I can see how that would definitely shape your view of things. Was your uncle or father around at this time to come to your defense?
Ace: No father or uncle did not come to my defense. I later lived with my father for a time, and my uncle…but no, my mother was a real piece of work.
DECAYKE: You’ said that you were handling a record collection when Hunter and Leary came down. Was that to do with Poo-Bah Records? And for clarification, did you ever own any part of Poo-Bah and what role do you have with the label?
Ace: The collection was in Burbank – Discontinued Records it was called, and I said I worked for the collection because the owner of the collection – Les Szarvas, composer of the music to H.R. Puffnstuff and Lidsville, he had recently passed away and his brother and sister were trying to keep the place open and eventually decided to sell it off. I was sent by another record collector friend to help them make heads or tails of some two-million records housed in a very large warehouse.
I never owned Poo-Bah, just spent much of my teenage years there and have been a part of it since. I never even worked there. The only part of the Poo-Bah label I can sort of take credit for is when the current owner, Ron Stivers, bought it. I heard that he not only wanted to buy a record store, he wanted specifically that record store. [He]was a fan of its history and the birth of the LAFMS. I was told he wanted to meet me specifically. I told him, now that you have the store, it’s up to you to take it to the next level and be a label as well. He may have already had this in his mind, but the first release on Poo-Bah, I think, was the last Mystery Band CD.
DECAYKE: Do you think that there is anyone out there that you can point to and say, “They’re on to something interesting?” Do you think that we’re at a stage where there is more repetition than true creation, to a greater degree than in the past?
Ace: We are always at a stage where there is more repetition than true creation. There was really no “noise” scene to speak of 40 years ago. There seems to be one now, which is progress to me. However, it does already consist largely of a very similar approach to sound making. John Wiese, GX Jupiter Larsen, Pod Blotz, Daniel Higgs and the Wolf Eyes crew are doing something. There are quite a few others…like all genres of music if you care to wade through the murk you will find some great innovators lost in the mix.
DECAYKE: How do you see things moving forward. What happens after free music, noise and the rest?
Ace: I will likely do this until I die. Hopefully, as I continue, more and more folks will like it and my last years may become vaguely comfortable, [although] this is not terribly likely. What happens after that? I hope my children will take by the reins and keep it interesting.