Uncle Terrible - A Brief History

Uncle Terrible - A Brief History

By Brian Sullivan. Drummer, Uncle Terrible 1995-1996

Uncle Terrible was a short-lived alternative rock band based in St. Louis, Missouri from 1995 to 1996. We didn't last long but we went all in on creating some interesting music that had no set boundaries. Below is a great background on the band written by our drummer Brian Sullivan. Paul Sontheimer was the last bassist in my band Otto's Revenge that had been active since 1989 before we split in 1995. - Kurt Hoffmann, singer Uncle Terrible

Founded in 1995

I had known Paul Sontheimer since the late 80s. After years of talkin' shit about metal, he finally embraced it (not saying that's what Otto's was, but he injected some of it in there). Around October 1993 I remember him saying "You gotta hear my new band!" He was happy to be in an all original band, that was gigging around town. I saw Otto's Revenge at Bernards and was impressed with their song Misery Zen, which had his classic Prog-Rock stamp all over it, among many other catchy Otto's tunes. Paul's best friend was my older brother Dan, so Paul and I started jamming anytime he was over on whatever his flavor of the week was: Maiden, Zappa, Chili Peppers, Metallica, Hip-hop, Pearl jam etc...

I had many mentors before that, but he knew a lot of music theory. He basically knew everything. He was a great teacher and had a nice way with constructive criticism. When I would rush tempos, he would say "It's like a meal. You wanna take it slow and savor it." Never forgot that stuff...

By '95  Otto's Revenge had broken up. Around May/June that year Paul says to me point blank "I want you to be my new drummer." I had done school gigs which I didn't take seriously, fooled around with some kids named Pokerface in '92, and sat in on percussion at Club 367, but I was 17 and nervous about joining. I told him I wasn't ready and he just goes, "Oh yeah you are." (So thanks for bringing me in the game, Paul.)

He proceeded to teach me his whole repertoire just the two of us in my basement. When he was satisfied, Kurt came to practice one day. Kurt approved of me and by end of the summer we were a band. Barry Hollander answered a guitar ad around August/September and he was in. I was very naive at the time, so i thought my first real band was going to be every wild idea I could possibly imagine. I was into the idea that guitar had become the enemy of innovative music, but everyone else wanted Barry's heavy sound.

Recording and Naming the Band

We recorded Misery Zen, and possibly the other 5 songs around October for the Guide to Fast Living compilation of local hard rock bands that Kurt had just conceived. I remember us thinking of a band name. Paul had an extremely facetious sense of humor, and he described every single aspect of life as "that's terrible." It was pretty funny. So we're looking at my brother Dan's tapes trying to think of band names and we see Uncle Tupelo. (No disrespect to any of those guys. We didn't know a thing about them at the time except that they were country. At that time, country was still a joke to our kind.) When Paul bursts out "Uncle Terrible!"

I thought it was funny, and using that as our band name I thought was pretty edgy, because we never denied its origin. I fought to keep the name and Kurt cringed since he was a fan of Uncle Tupelo, as he should have. (First mistake in being successful. Yes it's a bad name. I know. Guilty as charged.) Paul and I often had a nihilistic attitude, and throughout the band's existence, there's many things I didn't take seriously.

Adding Saxophone

We played our first gig at Bernards November 3, 1995. It must've been me who talked the band into adding a sax player by 1996, because Paul and Barry did not want Jeff Brabow to join. Me and Kurt fought to keep him. I was so obsessed with Mr. Bungle and other stuff that had horns, that i just couldn't resist. Jeff is a great musician and I still like him a lot, so nothing but love for you, Jeff. But looking back, I think there's many sections of the songs where sax doesn't belong, or just could've been more subtle. Me and Kurt were so in love with sax though, that I think he felt comfortable just coloring all over the page. Now that I have a much better idea of what professional music sounds like, that is possibly my only embarrassment of these recordings. (To be clear, he never plays badly, often it just didn't fit with the full-on metal guitar, etc.)
Note from Kurt: I still love all the sax and songs exactly as they are. I was already into mixing sax and jazz in with Otto's Revenge so I loved Brian's idea to bring it in to Uncle Terrible and I was happy to let Jeff go crazy with it. 

So Kurt booked us at any hip venue he could think of. I had no clue how easy that was for him. We played about 11 gigs until the end of 1996. The problem is I was so stubborn. I wanted everything and the kitchen sink to be in the band: full horn section etc, but I was so green. I was ignoring what was at the core of the band. I told myself that I wasn't really in love with the music. But that was because I didn't accept it for what it was. I don't think it made much difference that I was a clown at a lot of the gigs, but the band name was suicide. I'm pretty sure when we'd be announced on stage or Kurt would announce our name, some people would openly laugh. I didn't understand at first that that was bad. I did think humor belonged in music, but we simply should have tried to make a more intriguing and serious name, from the get-go.

The Music of Uncle Terrible 

So after i quit in 1996, i didn't look back or listen to our music at all. Until last year... So now, let's take a look at what was cool about this music. I see it as a marriage between Paul's music and Kurt's lyrics/ vocal melodies. Funny thing, Barry's two songs ("American Buddha" and "Farther Away") are actually now two of my favorites. He had to fight for Paul to start using his songs. Paul had a very classic Prog-Rock thing. He's a great writer (Misery Zen, Medicated Wave, etc.). He always wrote songs fully complete, great melodies, with many interesting peaks and valleys. He wasn't always so heavy in the 80s, but definitely by the time this stuff came along. I always viewed Barry's writing as just basic metal, but Kurt really ran with his songs. Great stuff. His songs are more traditional "songs" and more to the point, where Paul's writing was always trying to be complex and show-off. He worshipped Yes, Zappa, etc.

I knew a million great metal guitarists back then, so I was super critical of that, but Barry is a very skilled guitar player. So yes, you could look at Paul and me as the core and two most "similar" people. He and I had full respect for each other and truly loved playing together, in any capacity. But it sure was very different people basically just running free in different directions on this album with a lot to "say." That's possibly the true beauty is everyone was allowed to play as crazy as they wanted. There were no fuckin' rules. No one would be mean enough to say, "No, that's too much." I basically knew Kurt was from a punk background but I didn't realize how deep. I understand him and his lyrics more now. I remember asking Paul about it once and he said, "His lyrics are very esoteric." Classic Paul, right on the money.

The production is good (recorded at The Shed with Dave Probst). Heavy and slammin'. We sometimes overdid it with extra percussion and what-not but at least it doesn't sound weak. We were definitely a dysfunctional band, with Kurt steering the ship logistic wise, and Paul's horrible fatalistic attitude rubbing off on me. But I look back fondly. Getting really drunk at a rather young age. (Remember it was only 11 gigs.) Constantly ripping on each other. The Guide to Fast Living compilation release party at Kennedy's was fun. Late 1996 I guess, with Hogscraper from Cincinnati, and I cant remember who else. By September '96 I was completely lost in life. My Mom nagging at me all the time and my Dad gave me the "What you gonna do with yourself??" so i signed up for the Air Force. I demanded to play until December when I left. I felt bad, but I guess I had something to prove to the world, making such a radical move. If I didn't do that, I sure would've stayed in the band because the irony is I'm not a quitter.

In Retrospect

There's no telling if we could've accomplished more, but the truth is we simply were not the flavor of the year. For the record, I apologize to Kurt and everyone for being ungrateful at the time, and not being easy to deal with. Kurt especially bent over backwards for me and worked his ass off in all aspects. I didn't realize how short the window is to break through, especially in St. Louis, and the guys were up to 10 years older than me, but everyone's friends again.

So enjoy this recording! Forgive me for being only 17 on it. A lot of raw emotion. A lot of interesting, heavy stuff. We sure weren't short on ideas. Thanks for giving me some great gigging, studio experience, guys! No regrets.