On the night of Record Store Day, April 16, the legendary Indiana punk band The Last Four (4) Digits will perform live for one of the very few times since the 1980s. That day, unheard material from the early Hoosier punk band will be available in the limited Hardly Music box set and this summer they have a new record coming out on Time Change records. People keep telling me that the nineties are back, but seems like the eighties have got something to say about that.
Dave Fulton met me at the Alley Cat with a large yellow envelope full of fliers and EPS from Hardly Music related shows, especially those documenting his band the Last Four (4) Digits ... later the Last Four (5) Digits. (We’ll get to that.) He pulls out one D.I.Y. flyer from ‘80 or ’81 featuring a surrealist image of shrieking conjoined faces with the words “come as you are” printed in large letters at the top. [See nineties, eighties beat you to the punch.] It’s a striking image made more interesting by the ransom note-style text providing the show information.
Fulton, however, seems more bemused by the price of admission. “Look, two dollars,” he said and paused. “I think we charged too much.” We laughed, but then he made an important point about the revolutionary act of making the shows so accessible.
“Music up to ’76 and ’77 was so corporate and there were all these arena bands – the Rolling Stones and the Who and Led Zeppelin. Punk, though, had its roots in the theory that every generation needs its own music. A lot of us at the time felt we were being force fed music from the previous generation … and we didn’t like that.”
Fulton spoke to the radical idea realized in the punk and new wave movement that music could be a do-it-yourself endeavor. You didn’t have to be a great musician. You just had to have an authentic message. “The idea was just to go out and do something,” he said.
Certainly the label and associated bands were absorbing direct influence from some of the aforementioned aesthetic progenitors, but they were also just inspired by the energy of the movement. As Fulton explained, “It was all very spontaneous.”
“We never really cared about what anybody thought about us or our music. We were more interested in playing the music that we wanted to play than what the audience wanted to hear. As such we gained a small but rabid following.”
Jilly: So what year did the Last Four Digits form?
Dave: Uh oh. I think ’80, ’81. The Last Four Digits grew out of another band we had called The Joint Chiefs of Staff. They’re in that Hardly Music box[set]. Joint Chiefs first got together in ’78 and we performed in ’79.
Jilly: What did that sound like in comparison?
Dave: It was two guitars, bass, and drums – a common configuration. We didn’t have a synthesizer then, but we tried to be a little more experimental than the Latex Novelties and Your Parents and those bands. We never really cared about what anybody thought about us or our music. We were more interested in playing the music that we wanted to play than what the audience wanted to hear. As such we gained a small but rabid following.
Jilly: So was the main change for the band then the addition of the synth?
Jilly: And that’s the Last Four (5) Digits?
Dave: No, L44D. Last Four (4) Digits.
That's right, L44D had five members and the Joint Chiefs had four members.
Dave: You did your homework! Yeah, L44D is kinda what we called it. Came from the Joint Chiefs. Gary Fryer and Mark Gaines left and were replaced by John Koss, Mike Sheets, and Richard Worth. One of the things that we did was different… I had a pretty good ear for mixing the band and I didn’t trust anyone else to do it.
Jilly: So you sat back at the mixer and mixed and played synth.
Dave: And sang, which was very disorienting for the audience.
Jilly: Right! That’s exactly what I said when Rick told me about that setup. I think I woulda spent the whole time like… [mimes looking around confusedly]
Dave: There was a lot of that!
Jilly: So, to reiterate, you mixed, played synth, and sang from behind the board when it was the five member Last Four.
Dave: Yeah, so only four of them ever appeared on stage.
Jilly: So when did it change to four members with you appearing on stage?
Dave: What happened was Steve Grigdesby left and Richard Worth left. Julie Huffaker came in on bass and Mike Sheets moved to lead guitar. I was on synth still and Brad Garton came in on keyboards. So with Brad added to the band… that was L45D. It’s kind of confusing.
Jilly: So the L44D Hardly Music release was the first?
Dave: Yeah. It was an EP, two songs on a side [of a 7” vinyl record] instead of one.
Jilly: Right. What was the title of that one?
Dave: It’s the “Big Picture” EP.
Jilly: Did you put anything out on any other labels?
Dave: Yeah, the “Diddy Wah Diddy” track was on a compilation called Red Snerts.
Jilly: Oh yeah, Red Snerts. Was that Gulcher?
Dave: Yeah. I also had a solo track on there as did Brad Garton as well. Dow Jones had a track too.
Jilly: Do you have a favorite Last Four track or one that you’d recommend people go find?
Dave: I really like “Diddy Wah Diddy.” I like the L45D version of “Mack the Knife” although nobody’s heard that yet.
Jilly: Well, how do they hear it?
Dave: That’ll be on the album that’s coming out [on Time Change Records] this summer. It’ll have L45D and L44D tracks on it.
Jilly: Tell me about a memorable show.
Dave: Yeah, I think it was L44D [so ‘80/’81]… we played in Muncie with the X-Perts. It was in the basement of a house and the police came and busted it. That was fun. At some point [Joint Chiefs] played at the Sigma Nu house up in Lafayette. We called it the Sigma Nu Wave Party.
Jilly: Still trying to wrap my head around frats being interested in punk rock [as mentioned in the “Hardly Music Story.”]
Dave: It was because Steve Grigdesby’s brother was in the fraternity and talked them into letting us play. 2147 was an interesting show. . . We had a song that was called “On Occasion No Solution” and every member of the band played in a different time signature.
Jilly: And what was 2147?
Dave: It was 2147 N. Talbot St. [in Indianapolis] and it was somewhat short-lived.
Jilly: It was a punk club?
Dave: Yeah. It was a couple that wanted to start up a punk and new wave club. I remember doing that song [“On Occasion No Solution”] and everyone was dancing and once they realized it didn’t make any sense, they all sorta stopped dancing. . . sorta like… huh? Having everyone play in a different time signature threw everyone off.
Jilly: I thought that was called jazz. Lets see… in Rick’s book he describes the Last Four sound as “sardonic and sophisticated.” Can you respond to that?
Dave: I can’t recall anyone ever calling us sophisticated.
Jilly: I think that probably has to do with the careful mixing, synths, and Garton’s electronic contributions as well. That wasn’t something all the punk bands were doing.
Dave: Well, I mean, we had a vision of what we wanted our music to sound like and we bent over backwards to try to achieve that, not only sonically when we played live, but also in the arrangements and song selection. As I said, we never felt beholden to our audience, and we always admired bands that didn’t –like Throbbing Gristle and Pere Ubu. You sorta enjoy them on their terms.
Jilly: I hear you. My old band’s tagline was often, “It’s not for everyone.”
Dave: I like that! If you look at some of those old fliers we had taglines like “Recorded in stereo for the talented listener” and “noise you can trust.”
Jilly: What about out of town shows?
Dave: We played with the Zero Boys up in Chicago and L45D had a tour of the East Coast that was a lot of fun. We played at CBGBs which was kind of a feather in our cap. And Maxwells in Hoboken, New Jersey. After we got back I got a letter from a very famous music critic from the Village Voice,
Robert Christgau. It had a copy of our flyer on it and it said, “The next time you come to New York, you need to tell someone.” So the shows were successful but we didn’t really understand how to promote ourselves along the way.
Jilly: So what inspired the upcoming Record Store Day show?
Dave: So we have that album coming out this summer and we’d been doing some rehearsals for it, and Rick asked us if we’d be available for a record store day show, and we said “sure.” So we’re cutting our teeth in preparation for doing more shows after the album comes out. Dow Jones has their album coming out too, and the two bands were always very friendly, so the plan is to do some shows together.
Jilly: Anything you wanna say to people that are thinking about coming to the [Record Store Day] show?
Dave: I think the band has never sounded better.
And I think there will be a lot of people at State Street Pub Saturday, April 16. Maybe some people waiting to see The Last Four Digits for the first time since 1981. Of course, many will be seeing them for the first time. What will the different generations of music fans think about the reformed Indiana punk pioneers? Last Four Digits doesn’t care at all… just as it should be.