Looking Back — and Forward — with The Last’s ‘Look Again’ Album / Joe Nolte Interview

There was a time in the 1980s when Joe Nolte from The Last lived just a block away from my family in Redondo Beach, Calif. We lived on Steinhart Avenue and Nolte resided on Goodman Avenue in the north area of the city near the mysterious sump.

I didn’t know this until I spoke with Nolte on a recent Monday morning over the phone, but it would have been cool if the local musicians’ guild had informed me of this back then (haha).

When we were kids, our crew called itself the “Steinhart Stompers.” We referred to our neighbors down the hill as the “Goodman Geeks.” Just dumb kid stuff, and obviously, pre-Nolte, so he wasn’t part of our heckling in the ’70s. He probably would have kicked our asses back then.

Anyway, in nearby Hermosa Beach, The Last began churning out its multi-pronged pop-punk-surf-garage amalgamation in 1976, knocked out a few solid singles and then unleashed the classic “L.A. Explosion!” album in 1979.

The band recorded a second album, “Look Again,” in 1980, but it never officially saw the light of day — about 80 copies were pressed, with 40 going to fans and record labels. That long-lost gem finally has its day in the sun after being remixed and remastered and eventually released on Nov. 20 on House Arrest/Fat Possum Records. It features a dozen songs, plus a pair of bonus tracks, that have been itching to wedge their way into listeners’ ears for the last 40 years.

The Last

Nolte (guitar/lead vocals) wrote eight of the songs, Vitus Mataré (keyboards, flute) penned four of them — they collaborated on one — and The Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce (RIP) chipped in with one. It’s a stellar package of tunes that jolt the emotions and bring you right back into The Last’s lair at the turn of a new decade in 1980. Joe was originally joined in The Last by his brothers Mike (backing and lead vocals) and David (bass and lead vocals) along with drummers Jack Reynolds (original era) and John Frank (“Look Again” era).

With The Descendents’ Bill Stevenson and Karl Alvarez drummin’ and bassin’ in The Last, along with Joe and Mike, in 2013, the band powered through “Look Again” and another 1980 track “Difference” on the “Danger” album. That was some full-circle action since Stevenson was a disciple of The Last in the early days. Still is.

The Last’s current lineup features Joe, James Nolte (keyboard, vocals), Philo Van Duyne (guitar), Lisa Torres (bass) and Paul Rucker (drums). James is David’s son and Joe’s nephew, and Torres is Joe’s wife.

When I spoke with Joe, 64, he was nestled in his San Pedro home, not far from where he grew up in Palo Verdes before his family moved to Hermosa.

Let’s roll the tape on this lengthy trip into the world of The Last:

So I guess the main thing is, why release the record now?. “Look Again,” it’s been sitting there for a while.

Yes it has.

I’ve been trying and this is something I’ve wanted to do for, oh I don’t know, 40 years. (laughs) Oh gosh, yes. Where and how to start the story. Let’s see, I’m taking you with me as I go grab a sip of coffee because, I must.

Let’s see. Well, basically, “Look Again” was going to be our follow up to “L.A. Explosion!” We recorded it in the spring of 1980. Greg Shaw, we were still with Bomp! You know, Greg had been great about getting “L.A. Explosion!” out, didn’t have the resources to fund a second studio album. And so we decided to kind of do it independently and see what kind of deal we could cut.

And so we cut a deal with the new studio, new producer and (long pause) that’s kind of why it’s taken 40 years, basically, it didn’t work out like it was supposed to.

“L.A. Explosion!” I’d kind of dominated. I had pretty much arranged frequently note for note most of the parts on the album, for most of the instruments and everything. I had done the lion’s share of the production supervision. And, you know, Vitus felt bad about that. And so I said, “OK, you get the next album, I’ll just stay out of the studio, I’ll just let you do it.”

And so I set him up for a horrible experience because I didn’t even find out for a while that what happened was the producer would not let him touch the console. He was kept to a silent sideline role.

It was awful. The excuse the producer later uttered was it was for insurance reasons so nobody could touch the console, which was of course, bullshit.

So that didn’t happen. And then you guys took a break probably not too long after that, right?

It was the beginning of the end, see “Look Again” was like the culmination. I was writing some of my best stuff. We were at the top of the clubs in L.A. For a very brief moment in time, that is, but everything was was going really good. And it was just like leading up to “Look Again” and then “Look Again” didn’t turn out. I did a lot of double-tracked vocals and guitars that, put together would create the effects I wanted, only to be led to believe that they mostly were not kept. So that was a great disappointment. Producer had the great idea that we’ll have a guitar on one side, on one speaker, and then we’ll have the organ on the other speaker. Idiot.

Well, basically, we ended up with a record that sounded terrible. And the L.A. Times ran an article subsequently on why aren’t all these bands getting record deals. Referencing the top, you know, sort of like pop-punk bands like X and us and people. Somebody actually said that their record, which sounded horrible, set them way back.

We made vinyl discs of “Look Again” and sent them out as demos to all the labels. And there was, I think even a few, some went out to longtime fans and stuff, too. But anyway, it was a disaster. We didn’t like how it sounded and apparently none of the labels did, either. So that was it, it was a horrible disappointment. And basically that just killed me. That was my Brian Wilson “Smile” moment. It’s like I was on top and going, going, going, and all of a sudden, “kaboom,” you know, the rug was pulled out from under me. We had failed. And it was just going to end. All of a sudden, instead of a unified band under my autocratic control, we had five different guys with five different ideas on which direction to go in.

And I lost a lot of control. There were a lot of fights. And it’s nobody’s fault because we suddenly no longer had a direction. (In the early ’80s) we’re able to headline the Whisky and stuff frequently, and then do other shows, so we appear to be like a still successful band, but we’re getting worse by the week.

How many of those copies did you send out?

Oh, gosh, I’m not sure, maybe 40. I mean, there were under a hundred there. I think there was only like 80 that were pressed.

We ended up making a deal to like finish off our contract with Bomp!, where they put out an EP consisting of three songs, which we had our “LA Explosion!” producer came in and remixed the three songs that we chose from the unreleased “Look Again” album. And then we had also recorded the song “Fade to Black,” which was supposed to be in the movie and didn’t make the final cut.

Yeah, that was the “Fade to Black” EP that came out on Bomp! in ’82 and we gave them that and that took care of the contract, and by this time we’ve been able to gain possession, which we hadn’t had, of the “Look Again” tapes. Unfortunately, the tapes that were used were bad. It was like, 1980 was a particularly bad time for recording tape and the tapes were already degrading severely. So we didn’t dare even try to play ’em.

And so they sat, and I mean, they sat and they sat, gosh, there was, you know, SST, I talked to Greg (Ginn) in the mid ’80s about maybe putting the thing out, that didn’t quite pan out. By the ’90s, there were good baking techniques by which you can run the tapes once and transfer them digitally.

And that’s basically it. You know, it’s your one chance to save them, save the mixes and so I wanted to do that. And that became just a question of financing, and is anybody going to put it out? So we get to the early aughts, around 2002, I think. Anyway, Greg Shaw and I had gone from like almost daily phone calls and then to a period of animosity because he was the label guy that couldn’t deliver what we needed, which is sort of like putting out releases and promotion and stuff because, well, he just couldn’t because the realities of the business.

And by 2002, all that was water under the bridge. And we were emailing each other regularly. Well, we actually had given Bomp! “L.A. Explosion!” to put out properly on CD. And so now Greg and I were in talks about “Look Again.” Let’s do “Look Again.” And so we were talking about what form that would take. And one night I was writing him a really, kind of a long email about my current thoughts about what could be done with “Look Again.”

And my email server just like crashed, died. Died forever. I couldn’t recover any of our correspondence and found out subsequently that that very night Greg Shaw had died. I hadn’t even realized that there had been anything wrong. So that was devastating. And so that killed “Look Again” at that time. Anyway, my wife Lisa, who’s also our current bass player, suggested that it would be appropriate to try to get “Look Again” out for the 40th anniversary. Yeah, that sounds good.

And I said, let’s just make a copy of the demo album, because again, I figure how much better could we make it sound?

That was my idea just to go ahead, burn the disc and get it out, and so I ended up getting Vitus and Randall (Wixen), who was our manager back in ’79 and ’80. And so we were all sort of like involved in trying to figure out how to do this. And Vitus was stubborn and adamant and said, “No, no, we need to clean it up. We can make it sound good.” And, oh, I am forever grateful to Vitus for being so stubborn and adamant. Jonny Bell did the mixing, the restoring and did an amazing job. (John Strother did some baking and transferring as well.)

Vitus and Jonny had just completed the baking and submitted some preliminary mixes when the pandemic hit. I’ve been out of the house once since February. So basically, “Oh, crap.” It was gonna be mixing by email. So it’s like, Jonny would do the mixes. He actually did ’em and I thought, “I guess this is as good as it’s gonna get. It is what it is.”

And my wife again said, “Nah … If it’s not right, try to get it right.” And I’m thinking how I’ve been a failure for 40 years (laughs). But anyway, as it turned out, Randall wasn’t happy with the mixes, either. So, I gave instructions: bring this up, bring that down, get rid of this, add this — just a few things for Jonny to try.

And then he mentioned something. He said, “Yeah, there were a lot of extra vocal and guitar tracks, but I’m assuming those are just duplicates.” Ah, ha. Oh my God, the lost tracks, they didn’t get erased. So, what I said was, “Put ’em all in, put everything in, let’s hear what we’ve got, and then we can, like, mess around.” And I really, honestly, I didn’t know what to expect and how much was going to have to be done balance-wise.

But, yeah, it’s impossible to convey how I felt when subsequently I get these mixes of “Look Again” that I’ve never, ever heard. It was insane and it was good. It was like premixed, although I suspect that Jonny had to have done some fader action here and there. But my God, yeah, it’s like the added parts suddenly made everything make sense.

We had one song called “Weekend Girl,” which is on the “Look Again” album now as a bonus that we left off of the demo because it sounded so bad. Now it’s one of the strongest songs. But it’s like every song is greatly improved. Every song has something that wasn’t on the original mix. I’m ecstatic. We’re not likely to be teen idols any time soon (laughs).

How great to give this album, this 40-year album, to give it new life and to have it even better than what you thought it would have been back then. That’s insane.

Oh, way, way better. Yeah. This is vindication, you know, because I couldn’t remember having not had a chance to even hear the tracks. I didn’t remember what I’d done. And just indications like, “Oh, we hadn’t lost our minds.” We could make music that sounded like music. I was so ecstatic, and I remain ecstatic. The hardest thing was to kind of keep it under wraps, not tell anybody, you know, so it’s not like to kind of blow the surprise prematurely.

We had to wait for manufacturing. And we’ve got a nice CD booklet. And if I hadn’t had to edit what everybody contributed to the booklet, it would have turned into an actual book. So obviously we had to severely curtail what we wanted to say, which you, as a journalist, know that all too well. And you say, and I’m sure you get to the point rather quickly, where you start self-editing, knowing how it’s going to end up.

The Last at Liquid Kitty PRBBQ (Photo by Dorian Jones)

This is interesting because this album, it took a while for it to finally become realized. Do you ever think back? You know, what could have been, at that time, if everything would have worked out and the album came out back then the way it is now?

Who knows what would have happened. One always has to fantasize about, “Oh yeah, we could have been Beatles” or whatever.

The point being is that it’s here now and it sounds amazing in your ears and I’m sure people are gonna love it.

You know, what I was going to say is like if we had made it back then, we’d be has-beens anyway by now. If I’d made a lot of money back then, I would have spent it by now. It does end up working out, but, yeah, I’m really happy it’s coming out. Mostly it’s vindication that we were for one brief shining moment on the right track.

Sometimes you just need to wait it out until it finally kind of falls into place. You know, life is kind of weird that way.

It’s just a stroke of luck that the tracks were not removed. Because the existence of those extra tracks just made all the difference. I can hear traces of them even on the original bad mix, but not all of them, and not nearly to the extent that they ended up being in there. The producer, I think, just wanted to get done with the thing as quickly as possible.

So when you heard that final mix coming in, the one that’s on the album, what was it like hearing those takes that you’d never heard before, you know, 40 years later and a young Joe singing back at yourself? That had to be just a weird kind of scenario there for you.

Yeah, although not so weird because I revisit and listen to a lot of high school recordings. I do a lot of stuff from time to time. So I’m used to hearing my younger voice, as it were. But to hear the mixes improved and better than I thought they were gonna turn out, when I thought we still had the tracks back then, it’s just impossible to describe.

As far as revisiting my 1980 ghost, we’ve kind of been in touch regularly (laughs).

And, obviously, nobody’s been able to play a gig for a long time here. And I imagine you’ve got to be, and especially when you say you’ve only been out of the house once, you’ve got to be itching to get out there some day and bring these songs back out there on the scene.

Yeah. And everything’s up in the air. You know, it depends on if everybody’s still alive. And I’m not ruling anything out, I could see doing a series of shows with everything from the original lineup to the new and current lineup or something in between. It’s just a matter of who is available, who is willing, and the circumstances when we’re finally able to get out and play.

I’m at extra high risk. So, again, I just don’t leave the house just because I do intend on remaining alive for a while, partly so we can do some gigs (laughs).

Do you and your wife, are you guys constantly still playing at home, you know, making music, that type of thing?

We do, not nearly as much as we would ordinarily. There’s not a lot of motivation when you can’t do anything. But we do. We get together and we’ve done some online stuff with Philo, actually.

Have you written any new songs during the pandemic, anything new to add to the repertoire?

No. Short answer (laughs). I should. I’ve still got so many older songs that have never been recorded that I’m kind of working on. I think I’m stuck in ’76; currently I’ve been going on to sort of like the pre-“L.A” Explosion!” era, just ’cause there’s, “Hell, if they like that, they’ll like this stuff, too.”

*Yeah, why not? If you’ve got some stuff still there in the hopper from back in the day, why let it sit around? You might as well bring it out.

Exactly. Because now I’m in especially an archiving mode, there’s a lot of stuff that exists from back then and only in my head that needs to be laid down, at least for archival posterity sake, if not for the actual edification of some sort of audience.

So yeah, there’s a lot of stuff that I’m going to be very excited (about) when we’re able to get back to work. But I’d say Vitus and I and Randall and Jonny Bell and Don Brown (graphics artist)… I’m not convinced that we’ve seen the last of that group. We may be working together on some other stuff, hopefully in the future.

Now that we’re talking about The Last, you know, past, present, future, whatever… How would you like the band to be remembered? What kind of mark have you guys left and would you like to continue to make?

Yeah, that’s a tough one. I mean, it’s like what sort of band are we, huh? Longevity is key because the longer I live, the easier it is to lie (laughs). I think my role in the sort of origins of the pop-punk thing has grown through the years in my various interviews, and I figure, give me another 15 years, I will have invented music (laughs).

You guys resonated with people. And you continue to over the years. And so that’s got to feel good to have your songs still be meaningful to people and to yourselves.

It is. It is. It is. I would be happier if slightly more people experienced that sort of resonating. There is hundreds of people, not much more, who are very hardcore fans. And then the rest of the world does not actually know we exist. So the ratio’s a little off, but hopefully this release is going to reach a few more people. I think the main thing is I really want people to hear my music.

That’s been the goal since I started playing guitar in 1967. And that remains, I want my music to live on and to be heard and enjoyed by as many people on the planet as possible. And they can call it what you want because you gotta figure that I’d written like about 30 songs for The Last before the Sex Pistols released their first single, and, of course, “Anarchy” was the obvious signpost. “Anarchy” was pointing the way where everything was going to have to go, it was just such a brilliant record. But I already had my own take on punk rock, which decidedly was somewhat different and had a much stronger pop element and keyboards. Back in the day, we weren’t just, “Yeah, they’re a pop band, but they play with the urgency of punk rock,” … no.

We had a self-destructive sort of authentic punk attitude and feel going on, especially live, but we had the pop thing going on, too. We were an actual hybrid, kind of like what the Go-Go’s were at the very beginning before the album. And yeah, and then that’s made it tough. We were at the top of the heap in ’79 and the first part of 1980 when everybody was going to everybody’s shows and you’d see new wave types at hardcore shows and punk rockers at pop shows.

And then as of about by mid-1980, that changed and you start to get all these jocks who came in, and, “Oh yeah, punk rock, that means I can go beat up people, get away with it.” You know, all the people that we started the scene to get away from, suddenly came in. It increased the numbers to the point where people could actually make some money. But it was absolutely wrong as far as sort of creative development, because all of a sudden, you know everything, the dichotomy, it’s like you dress this way, you go to those kind of shows and buy those records and that’s it. Or you dress this way, blah, blah, blah. There was no longer any sort of communal fraternization. We’d sort of always straddled the fence. And suddenly, the two sides split and we just fell, impaled on our own attempt to be inclusive.

I look for the day when I can go back down to the South Bay and visit my parents and hopefully having you guys play a gig someday. So we’ll cross our fingers that we’ll be able to do it sometime.

I don’t see why not. So actually, there’s going to be competition because every band in the world is going to be just wanting to play all over the place when this is over.

Well, I’m glad to see that “Look Again” is finally happening for you 40 years later. So, you know, sometimes we’ve got to wait 40 years. Hopefully we won’t have to wait 40 more years for the next step. But then who’s going to be around then, right?

Yeah. This has been kind of a grim interview. And mostly it’s my fault (laughs). Although the comment about where are we going to be in 40 years kind of really hits home.

This article was originally posted in There’s Something Hard in There  11/24/2020

Philo of The Last. All photos by Elise Thompson for The LA Beat






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