Syllabus of Errors: The End of Sightings

Syllabus of Errors: The End of Sightings Credit: Andrew W.K.

For the 15 years of its existence, Sightings rode a searing squall that fell somewhere between no wave, noise, free jazz, and a number of other dissonant micro-genres, always presenting themselves as a rock band. The Brooklyn-based trio-- comprised of Mark Morgan (guitar and vocals), Richard Hoffman (bass), and Jon Lockie (drums)-- led a consistent regimen that saw the band perform local shows, tour all over the U.S. and Europe, and release album after album of caustic beauty on labels like Load, DaisPsych-O-Path, Fusetron, and Ecstatic Peace!, among others. But with Dais' announcement of Amusers and Puzzlers, Sightings' tenth album, came the news that the trio was officially over. Serving as an epilogue of sorts, the new LP shows the band in its waning moments, not slowing down or losing power but transitioning to an older, more refined and potent version of itself. We caught up with Morgan and Hoffman to trace the band's final moments, as well as the various highs and lows of Sightings' career.

AdHoc: When did Sightings actually break up?

Mark Morgan: Two years ago. Jon, the drummer, quit. He was sick of shit and just said, “I’m done.” And that was that. I think when I was one of my more grandiose moments I’d thought, “Everyone in this band is irreplaceable.” Being Mr. False Modesty, I did actually think that. I thought everyone has their unique playing styles, so if someone left the band and someone else came in, it would definitely be a different thing. You could say that about a million other bands too. We didn’t make a fucking blood pact or anything to say if one person leaves, the band is done. Jon quit and Richard and I thought about trying a new drummer and we vaguely entertained that idea – maybe 50% serious – and it got to a point where we were like, “Fuck that shit.” I think we had our run. We weren’t going to shit at the end, but after you play music for 15 years it’s like, yeah.

Richard Hoffman:  We don't really know why Jon quit, but I will say Mark and I were pretty aware that playing challenging music was unlikely to garner much tangible success.

AdHoc: Where did the title Amusers and Puzzlers originate?

MM: It was from a book I read a few months ago by Robert Hughes. He wrote a book called The Fatal Shore (1986) about early Australian penal history.  Of course, you have to get a view of England to have an understanding of it because that’s where the convicts are coming from. It gets into levels of crime in London in the late 1700s. There was a term for these scam artists – these kids – where they’d literally pick up shit or horse shit and throw it in someone’s face while their partner would pick-pocket the other guy. And they were called “amusers and puzzlers” and it made me laugh, so we called the record that.

AdHoc: Can you recall any “best shows” or experiences while in Sightings?

RH: A lot of my best memories are little things that wouldn't make sense to other people, although as far as shows go I do have fondness for several outdoor shows we played. Something about jamming with the breeze on ya that's pretty satisfying. Moon over the Adriatic Coast. Daylight rooftop in Manhattan. That sort of thing.

MM: There were a few really good shows sprinkled around here and there New York over the years where the Rock Gods bequeathed you with a crowded room of 30 people. We played a show with the Dead C at the Bowery Ballroom four or five years ago. That was a fun show. Thurston [Moore] and Bill Nace, when they were doing the Northampton Wools thing, opened up the show. We also played a really fun show with Comets on Fire at the same place.

I always really liked playing shows where people didn’t really know who you were but fans of the headlining band might give you some sympathy. I didn’t feel any validation when we played shows like that and were really alienating. I already know there are a lot of people who won’t like this music and I realize there are a lot of idiots in the world, not necessarily that you had to be smart to like my band. I shouldn’t be surprised that a large swash of people wouldn’t like this music, of course!

I also remember playing this one show in Rome. We were packed into this little basement with maybe 75 people and people were fucking psyched. It was nuts. It was a really great feeling to be all the way over in Rome and people were pumped.

AdHoc: You guys never really worked with producers.

MM: The first three were all on four-track in Richard’s basement in Brooklyn, and all we had to do was get them mastered. Each record probably cost $5 to make. If we wanted to scrounge up the money and go to the studio we could have done that, but we went into the studio twice really early on and we didn’t like way it sounded.

AdHoc: Through the Panama was made with Andrew WK, who I’m assuming you met in Michigan.

MM: I didn’t meet Andrew until he moved to New York. Me and my roommate at the time knew the brother of Andrew’s girlfriend through Ann Arbor, and she was like, “Hey, my boyfriend wants to move to New York. Could you meet him and see about letting him crash with you for a little bit while he gets on his feet?” So we met him when he was like 18 and I was like, “He’s pretty funny. Kind of a character, never met anyone like him before.” So he ended up staying at our house for five months – something so excessively long. It got to the point where I was ready to kick him out. Then the day I decided to kick him out, he found an apartment. I was so happy because I was about to be like, “Dude, you gotta get out.” It would have been an unpleasant conversation to have.

We talked about doing a record and bobbed the idea around for a few years. We recorded Through the Panama in November 2005. Then we dicked around mixing for a couple years. We spent a lot of time on that record, and in retrospect, I have to say the material just isn’t there. There were some things we sweated over to make sound halfway decent, and consequently it’s my least favorite record of ours. It’s nothing against Andrew, I enjoyed working with him. We did things a lot differently than we normally did and it was fun, but it was grueling. Like, Jesus Christ I’m tired of listening to this and discussing it.

AdHoc: How have you seen the music scene change throughout Sightings' lifespan?

MM: There’s certainly a lot more fucking bands now. It’s insane. There are just a million bands here now and you can’t even keep track of the shit. I don’t know why you’d want to. When I first moved here, it didn’t seem quite as claustrophobic as it does now. I read some statistic the other day where in the last six or seven years, New York has absorbed 500,000 college graduates between the ages of 22 and 25. It’s a lot of fucking people. At this point, the people who can afford to move here right out of the gate are college graduates with money. 

When I moved here, you could work in a record store for nothing and still pay your rent. It’d be tight but you could do it. I literally made $6 an hour under the table and was able to afford rent, even though it was only $375 a month. It was cheap, but you could find places like that. That world is never going to come back again. More creative people could live here if it wasn’t so expensive, but at the same time, why does this paradigm exist that you have to live in New York? I do like this city but there are a lot of negatives about it, and certainly more now than when I first moved here.

AdHoc: Is there anything you’re excited about in the New York scene right now?

MM: Honestly, I’m not really excited about anything I see around here. I’m sure there must be something out there I like, but I don’t really go to many shows these days. It’s not like I’m some shut-in watching Top Chef every night, I’m only like that five nights a week. A lot of the music I do see is pretty fucking wack. Maybe I’m going to the wrong shows. I’m sure some cool stuff is happening.

AdHoc: Do you see yourselves playing music post-Sightings?

RH: Well, I have a two month-old daughter so that's sort of taking precedence over other things, but Mark and I have a project called Silk Purse that's pretty good and carries the Sightings torch, obviously. Maybe it will be more active in the future. Otherwise, I am being patient and looking for the right projects.

MM: I also play with my buddy Pat [Murano, ex-No Neck Blues Band, Decimus]. We’re really good friends, he’s coming over to watch the Game of Thrones finale and he’ll bring his son, who’ll probably stare at his iPad all night. We have a band called Key of Shame and we play pretty sporadically. We’ve had two records come out on Italian labels, weirdly. We don’t write anything, we just kind of jam – even though Pat hates the word “jam.” Silk Purse is more of a songwriting thing, we don’t really jam or screw around as much. I’m not as psyched about getting songs together as I was when I was younger. It’s not like I hate songs, I just don’t have that drive any more. It’s not as hammered down as Sightings was.

AdHoc: So will any unreleased Sightings material see the light of day?

MM: We have tons of four-tracks tapes, but the masters went up in flames when Richard’s building caught fire. The fire was directly above his apartment and the closet where all the master tapes were stored. I have a big box of four-tracks from the late 90s, just shitloads of shit but I see it as pointless to bother with it. I’m not above it; I just don’t think it’d be interesting. It’d be cool to listen to the old tapes, but I never feel compelled to go back to that box and pop stuff into the tape player. There’s nothing left to put out.

RH: The best unreleased stuff were live staples that never got recorded properly anyway. If anyone has a good live recording of that 20 minute jam we were doing regularly 6-7 years or so ago, let us know.

AdHoc: You seem pretty cool-headed about the end of the band.

MM: Yeah, I have a good view about it and feel like we did a lot of great stuff. There were moments where we were firing on all cylinders, like a totally badass band. We got less consistent as we got older, but musically, we went out on top. We weren’t writing a lot for those last six months, but we were all playing really great. I was really excited by it, and being pumped like, “I don’t know any other band like this.” That’s all I wanted to do, be in a band that sounded like no one else. That was my teenage goal.

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