An obvious problem when booking a show that includes two bands that haven’t played in years — whose heyday was nearly two decades ago — is there’s a very good chance no one will remember who they are. At least no one who still goes to rock shows.
Let me set the stage, because this isn’t just a story about two rock bands putting together a reunion show. It’s the story about the making of a scene.
Fade in: Oct. 8, 1989, The Lifticket Lounge in Benson. Two kids are hustling a relatively unknown band onto the club’s riff-raff stage. The trio consists of a geeky tall guy on bass named Krist Novoselic, a drummer named Chad Channing, and a blonde-haired surfer-looking dude named Kurt Cobain. Hundreds of people will say they were at the lounge that night, but only 40 or 50 of them aren’t liars.
The two kids who put on the show were Tim Moss and John Wolf. Their production company: Main Vein Productions.
“You hear about so many people being at that Nirvana show,” Wolf said from his midtown basement, sitting next to Moss and Moss’s massive pug, Henry BadAss Kissinger. “We had 40 or 50 people there, just enough to cover the $150 guarantee.”
To understand what pioneers Moss and Wolf were, you have to understand what the music scene was like in Omaha circa 1989. It was a craptacular collection of meat-market singles bars hosting cover bands. The only “original” rock concerts were held at the Civic Auditorium and featured national acts like Journey and Van Halen. Oh, there were a few punk shows going on at social halls, and Lincoln had The Drumstrick, but for the most part, nothing.
“The shows we booked involved the music we wanted to see,” Wolf said. “No one else was doing anything like it at the time.”
Their first booking was in 1988 for folk-pop bands Downy Mildew and Hetch Hetchy, an act that featured Michael Stipe’s sister, Linda. It didn’t take long until word got out about Main Vein and the duo was booking the best indie bands that labels like SST, Sub Pop and Matador had to offer at places like The Lifticket, Sokol Hall, Eagles Hall, Diamond Hall and the Howard Street Tavern.
“We spent a lot of time calling places,” Moss said. “When they found out we wanted to put on a rock show, they hung up.”
Among the more than 100 Main Vein-produced shows were Soundgarden (a mere $500 guarantee at The Lifticket), Bad Brains (nearly a disaster at Radial Hall when the stage and lighting rigs almost collapsed), and Ministry at Peony Park Ballroom (a $5,000 guarantee show that tanked).
Main Vein not only was the first production company to bring quality national indie rock bands to Omaha, but it opened the eyes of music fans for local acts by putting them on as openers. By the early ’90s Omaha and Lincoln were experiencing their first indie Golden Age. Years before Saddle Creek Records made its mark, bands like Frontier Trust, Mousetrap, Sideshow and Simon Joyner were getting national attention.
Among those bands were Cellophane Ceiling and Ritual Device.
Wolf said he formed Cellophane Ceiling sometime around ’84 or ’85. He’d been in other bands while in high school at Millard North, but “Cellophane was the first time I was allowed to write my own songs.”
Featuring Wolf on guitar and vocals, Chris Sterba on bass and Steve Coleman on drums, Cellophane Ceiling’s style combined jangling college rock with grinding punk. Jim Healy of the The Omaha World-Herald called the band’s 1986 vinyl debut, The Beauty of it All, “a triumph of garage-band intensity and studio precision” and coined their sound “thrashabilly.”
“Before that we’d done a cassette-only release called Nothing Means Nothing that I don’t think I even have a copy of,” Wolf said. “And then we did the Fry EP.” The 7-inch, released on Wolf’s Main Vein label in 1990, featured a cover photo by Mike Malone of an American flag behind the lenses of a gas mask (worn by Tim Moss).
“A lot of people locked into that EP, and music people began courting us,” Wolf said. Among them a producer of early Goo Goo Dolls records and an A&R guy from Hollywood Records, but nothing ever came of it. “It required a certain level of commitment that no one wanted to make at the time,” Wolf said.
Instead, the band played constantly throughout the Midwest, all the way to Chicago and did a West Coast tour with Buck Naked and the Bare Bottom Boys. Their last album, Breaker Breaker Love Maker, released on Main Vein in 1993, would become the band’s swan song. Sometime in ’95, Cellophane Ceiling ended. “We never did a last gig,” Wolf said, “It was one of those things where we got to the point that no one wanted to tour. Our time had passed.”
Go online and you’ll find very little evidence of Cellophane Ceiling’s existence. A Google search will turn up a couple incomplete write-ups, a Discogs listing and a YouTube video directed by Dickson Le Bron for the single “Don’t Play God.” The black-and-white clip is a surrealist’s dream that features the band as futuristic marionettes on a chessboard sound stage controlled by a pair of gloved hands working a Star Trek-styled control board. At the center of the action is Wolf, sporting a mop of dark curly hair, white T-shirt and a classic post-punk sneer.
Among those influenced by Cellophane Ceiling was a young Tim Moss. He’d met Wolf via mutual friend Jim Homan, and the three formed the trio Big Muff Pie just before Wolf and Moss launched Main Vein Productions.
A year later, a new band came on the scene that featured Mike Saklar on guitar, Jerry Hug on bass and Eric Ebers on drums. The frontman was Moss — a long-haired madman with a mumble-scream vocal style both rhythmic and creepy, like a homicidal drunk with a microphone.
One writer put it this way: “Ritual Device is a tortured, monolithic punk rock band whose sound has been aptly described as ‘gutter groove’ — perfect background music for your typical serial killing or high-speed car chase through a bombed-out Beirut neighborhood. The closest comparison? Maybe the Jesus Lizard meets Ministry with a little Nine Inch Nails thrown in (without the synths, of course). It is violent music, scary.“
Their first single, “Ritual Lips” — an ode to notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy — came out on Aural Rape Records (Moss’s insignia) in 1991 and set the stage for the kind of twisted-yet-groovy punk that was the centerpiece for their 1993 full-length debut, Henge (Redemption / Dutch East India). Produced by The Jesus Lizard’s David Wm Sims and recorded in Steve Albini’s home studio, Henge was the band’s hallmark, which you can hear in its entirety on YouTube.
The band leveraged Dutch East India’s broad distribution power with national tours and quickly became notorious for their live sets that included Moss throwing raw pig ears and pig feet into the crowd. “I would get bored and wanted something to do,” Moss explained, “and dancing around is not my forte.” When he wasn’t throwing pig ears, Moss stalked the edge of the stage like a caged panther, staring down members of the crowd, grasping a microphone whose cord was tightly wound between his fist and elbow.
The band hit its high point in ’93 when they were asked to play Lollapalooza in Des Moines alongside Tool, Babes in Toyland and Alice in Chains, among others. E! Entertainment news would name Ritual Device the ugliest band on Lollapalooza. The festival would be Jerry Hug’s last show with the band before he left to pursue a law degree. He was replaced with Randy Cotton, who played on the band’s 3-song live EP recorded at The Capitol Bar & Grill and released at the end of 1994 by Mafia Money Records
“I kind of had an issue with major labels back then, I was against the whole thing,” Moss said. “We were courted by Atlantic Records. (Then A&R chief) Wendy Berry wanted to sign us. She followed us around to shows and took us to really nice restaurants. But I pushed it off. The idea was to do more recording, but I had a hard time writing music after Jerry left right after Henge came out.”
While all this was happening, Main Vein Productions slowly dried up. The Ranch Bowl had entered the concert-booking business and had cornered the market on touring indie bands. “We kind of petered out because we couldn’t compete with (Ranch Bowl owner) Matt Markel, who had sound, lights and security, and made money off the bar,” Moss said. “He could outbid us easily. It became less fun for me and John, and by then, we were more focused on our bands.”
Moss said the last Main Vein show was around 1993, except, of course, for what’s going on the night after Christmas. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
By the summer of 1995 Ritual Device also had come to a close. The previous year the band had released another 7-inch on Lincoln’s Caulfield and Ism labels, a split 7-inch (under the name Gacy Landscaping) with fellow local punkers Mousetrap on Dave Sink’s One Hour Records, and a split 10-inch with Madison band Killdozer on Frank Kozik’s Man’s Ruin Records.
Kozik would eventually coax Moss to move to San Francisco in ’96 and form a new band featuring Jerry Hug, Jeff Heater and John Wolf (among others). They would become known as The Men of Porn, a band whose sound had that same pounding groove that pulsed through the best Ritual Device stuff. Where Porn differed was in its unrelenting love of distortion — big, thick slabs of gloppy, primitive fuzz guitar. The band’s one-sheet for its debut album, American Style, warned potential listeners: “If distortion, dissonance and porn offend you, do not listen to this record.” And sure enough, you got plenty of all three.
The Men of Porn did some national touring, including a gig at the fledgling South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin. Eventually Porn would evolve into a band that featured Moss and whoever he could get to play with him. A 2013 Porn performance in England featured Bill Gould of Faith No More, Balázs Pándi of the band Merzbow and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.
A tour road manager since 2002, Moss has worked with The Melvins (Dale Crover is a former member of Porn), Mastodon, High on Fire and Tomahawk, and is now managing Faith No More. Moss’ wife, Clementine, is member of Led Zeppelin tribute band Zepparella.
After Cellophane Ceiling ended, Wolf joined Bad Luck Charm with Mark Blackman, Lee Meyerpeter and Tom Barrett, carrying on the “thrashabilly” tradition until the band ended in 2011. Through it all, Wolf has made a living working for Cox Communication. He and his wife, Jenny, have raised two sons, Griffin, 12 and Nathan, 14.
So why do a reunion show?
“We always said we’d never do a reunion,” Wolf said about Cellophane Ceiling. But then over beers with Moss and Jerry Hug, the idea began to make sense. Cellophane bassist Chris Sterba also was in, but drummer Coleman was unavailable, so taking over the kit for the Dec. 26 reunion show will be Filter Kings’ drummer Chris Siebken.
“It’s been fun relearning songs I’ve forgotten about,” Wolf said. “Chris and I have been going back and listening to things recorded twenty-something years ago, trying to figure out how we did it.”
Moss also is on the record as saying there would never be a Ritual Device reunion. “I like looking forward and not behind,” he said. “I’m not looking for memories on stage, but I always said if Cellophane Ceiling played again, then I’d play.”
The Ritual Device line-up for the Dec. 26 show at The Waiting Room will include all the original members: Moss, Saklar, Hug and Ebers. “It’s been a weird couple of drunken nights transcribing lyrics,” Moss said. “It’s taken me back to those songs and has me wondering what I was thinking when I wrote them, remembering things that were either good or bad.”
It’s only fitting that the reunion concert will be held in the same building where Moss and Wolf booked Nirvana 25 years ago. That’s right, The Waiting Room is located in the building that used to house The Lifticket Lounge.
And if you haven’t guessed already, the Dec. 26 reunion show is a Main Vein Production.
Ritual Device and Cellophane Ceiling play with Nightbird Friday, Dec. 26, at The Waiting Room, 6212 Maple St, Omaha. Showtime is 9 p.m. Tickets are $10. For more information, go to onepercentproductions.com.