A New Career in Town

Originally published in Alternative Press, January 1997


With each new release, mainman Kurt Heasley sheds styles, band members and towns. Is it eccentricity, a short attention span or insecurity that motivates this pop chameleon? Healey tells Randee Dawn he's just trying to live and learn by example.

What if your life's purpose was only to serve as an example to others? We'll get to that. Meanwhile, don't interrupt: Kurt "Wally" Heasley is on a roll. "Lilys music is nice and totally believable. Before, I'd always make fun of the records because in my mind they had so many deficiancies. The songs are like puppies. You could make fun of them for being cute and fluffy, but they're real; they're like little slices of life." Beat. Pause. "At least, my life."

"Some people will turn them off after two seconds of listening. Our record label {Che/Primary/Elektra} thinks that's going to happen more often than not, that only this weird little ring of people is going to like it. And that's fine. We can hang out with anyone in the club who comes to see us. Anyone who makes it to one of our shows is a decent, worthwhile person. They're not nice people who come to our shows-nice people are a dime a dozen-but they're people you can tolerate and learn from, even if they just teach you what not to do."

Heasley, head and only consistent member of the Lilys, takes a breath and surveys the room. This is where you've ended up, discussing Heasley's band, but how you got here was as meandering as the stream-of-consciousness manner in which he speaks. You were warned, of course. Prior to the interview, former Velocity Girl/Lilys member Archie Moore told you, "He's a rambling anecdote-teller who'll tell you everything except what you asked." But you've gone ahead and started making demands.

The request had been fairly simple: to find a small cafe, preferably with air conditioning because today July has abruptly returned to chastise September. In order to comply, Kurt has led you through the backstreets of SoHo, through crumbling neighborhoods and pickup ball games, walking east, east, east, until surely the entire island of Manhattan must just end. He strides along in long, loping steps with his gangly drummer, Aaron Sperske, to a street smelling of putrefaction. But here Heasley has proven Moore wrong-the walk was indeed long and rambling, but Kurt has found exactly what was ordered-an air-conditioned slacker cafe called the Pink Pony.

In tackling the Lilys' latest output, the key is to assume Kurt always knows where he's going, even if the routes taken to get there seem cicuitous. Beginning in the early 1990's, the Lilys have been, variously, a shoegazer band in the tradition of My Bloody Valentine, a psychadelic, beautiful-headache band and, in their latest incarnation, with Better Can't Make Your Life Better, a garage-pop band with a Kinksian twist.

"Lilys projects are usually defined by enviornment and the makeup of the band that day," explains Heasley. "For the first album, I was with my best friend, Mike Hamill {of the Ropers}, and a totally brilliant guitar player, Archie Moore." Also in the band was the one player-other than Heasley-who would remain consistent until Better, Poole drummer Harold "Bear" Evans. "That record cost about $1000 to make; we tracked it in about four hours, overdubbed it in an afternoon and mixed quickly," says Heasley. The result: the thick guitar wash of In The Presense of Nothing.

"The next album," Heasley continues, referring to Eccsame The Photon Band, "my heart was broken, I was poor, I was pretty much at the proverbial end of my rope. And that's what ruled the last record. I was incoherently banging on the guitar, and Bear was playing drums like he totally meant it, and he heard what I was feeling, gritting my teeth and crying. He was like, "You told me what you wanted-you wanted energy." And I was like, "Fuck yeah!"

That sort of wailing and gnashing of teeth has generated a core of Lilys fans who, drawn to the music, have become facinated as much by Heasley's insistence on personal independance as by the jangled routes taken to get where he is today. Growing up in various locations between Florida and New Jersey, Heasley received one of the bigger jolts of his life when he transferred from a Quaker-run school in Maryland to public high school. "It was very bizarre going from an all-ego enviornment," recalls Heasley, "where they say, "I'm just going to judge you on your output and what you can prove to me, what is tangible," to the public school where it was like, "You're a lunatic!" It was the most complete 180 of everything I was prepared for in life. That was when I was 14. And a year later, I needed two classes to graduate, and I was like, "I can't do this anymore, Mom; I need to take my classes, but I can't do school anymore."

Heasley moved to Washington D.C., living first in a laundromat, then became upwardly mobile by moving to a laundry room, where he secured a record deal and signed deal and signed away his publishing rights at the age of 19. From there, Heasley began the musical and personal travels (he has lived in cities up and down the Eastern seaboard, Kentucky and Colorado) that haven't really ended, they've just paused for a while in Boston, where he currently resides. There's always another place to be, another sound to investigate, someone else with whom he hasn't played. He's even recently changed his name, now going by Kurt instead of Wally. Consistency seems to rattle Heasley, and his restlessness translates from music to cities of residence to multiple band members. Repetition of the past is simply not part of the way his creative process works. Ask about Evans' absence on Better, and initially Heasley blames it on bursitis. "He got it on his wrists," says Heasley.

"I had that for a while," allows Evans, in the studio recording the next Poole album, "but mainly I didn't work on the album with him this time around because he didn't ask me."

Talk to Heasley a little longer, and a clearer picture comes through: Despite the creative benefits engendered by sticking together over three albums, the comfort level working with Evans had stunted the creative flow. "Bear was like my security blanket," Heasley explains. "Bear knows me, he keeps me safe from harm, but he didn't have the ability to say "Don't be safe, move a little bit, let me throw something unexpected at you."

Evans agrees. "When I work with Kurt, I realize it's his record, not mine and his record. As a creative person I know what it's like when someone won't give you what they want because they think their ideas are better. It was a matter of sucking down your ego. I definitely knew my place, and that was to play exactly what he wants."

And what Heasley really wanted was a drummer willing to drive over the abyss with him, straight into Pop Land. He found him in Aaron Sperske, of L.A.'s Miracle Workers. Assembling a new cast and crew for Better {Sperske, Thom Monahan (ed note: of Monsterland) Torben Pastore on guitar and Timothy Foote on organ} may have augmented Lilys' fierce pop sound, but having a new line-up didn't smooth over the serious financial difficulties that burdened them almost from the start. "By the last week," recalls Heasley, "I was doing my vocals, and the only thing left in the refrigerator was garlic. And I was eating it. For four days I was eating garlic balls and drinking water. Mike {Deming, the album's producer} wouldn't let me in the control room, he was like, "Take a shower!"

Pugent cloves may have exercised some diminion on the overall tone of the record, but most likely the biggest influence was in Heasley's own insecurities. "They're all, "Kurt, you're such a boob, and that's why I love you. If you weren't such a dumbass you wouldn't be as much fun to hang around; your mistakes help me more than anything you can tell me. Anything you can tell me is worthless, but anything you do in front of me and I can break apart, that's when you become interesting."

So, what if your life's purpose was only to serve as an example to others? That seems to be all right for Heasley. He even admits the band's relative obscurity suits him fine, and he declines to prophesy the future for his music. "You can listen to this record, and if you like this record better than all the other ones, then...listen to us in the future. I don't even know if there's going to be a next album. We don't need to be around all the time. If you check us out once every six months to a year, that's probably more Lilys than you need."

Afternoon has crept into the Pink Pony, and it's just about time for Kurt and Aaron to meet the rest of the band for soundcheck. Emerging from the cafe ino the lingering heat, you feel as if just a few yards, measured, of course, by Heasley's sauntering strides, brings him and Aaron to Fez, the small club in NoHo where Lilys will play tonight. And that might stand as one of the few unspoken lessons to be unearthed from hanging out with Kurt Heasley: No matter how deep you travel into the unknown-whether it be Boston or Colorado or Pop Land-the return journey home is never as long as it seemed when you first headed out.

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