Wipers’ ‘Is This Real?’ at 40: Greg Sage Reflects on a Northwest Punk Landmark
Portland punk trio the Wipers played their first hometown gig, opening for a couple of New Wave-y California groups, in 1978. Fifteen-year-old Jerry Lang, a recent Portland transplant, was in the audience, and when the Wipers took the stage, he wasn’t sure what to make of them. “They weren’t really fashionable, as far as punk goes,” Lang remembers. “They weren’t dressed in the punk uniforms — spiky hair or safety pins — so the crowd wasn’t too crazy about them.” But when they kicked into their captivatingly gnarly originals, “everything changed that night” for him.
“They knocked it out of the park,” he says. “Their songs were kind of like little bombs. As soon as they started playing, everybody knew right away an underdog was coming in.” Lang now estimates he saw the Wipers in Portland more than any other band in his life, and within a couple of years of that concert, he rebranded himself Jerry A. and co-founded his own influential punk group, Poison Idea.
A few years later, the Wipers similarly upended the worlds of a couple of Seattle teens, Steve Turner and Mark Arm. They’d gotten a copy of the Wipers’ second record, the dark and noisy Youth of America, fell in love with band’s rough side, and went to their first Wipers gig in 1984. “They were a very intense band,” Turner recalls. “It was Greg [Sage] up front, and he’d say one line before each song and the bass player was in the back, standing motionless, but it was this intense, driving sound.” That year, Turner and Arm co-founded the primordial grunge group Green River, drawing inspiration from the Wipers and a few other local punk bands, and later formed Mudhoney in 1988.
A couple years after Mudhoney formed, the Wipers’ most ardent champion, Kurt Cobain, named only the Wipers when a journalist asked him what influenced Nirvana’s sound. “They’re the most innovative punk rock band that started the ‘Seattle sound’ like 15 years too early,” he said in 1990. “We learned everything from the Wipers. They were playing a mix of punk and hard rock when nobody cared.”
In the space of a little more than a decade, the Wipers had influenced three generations of punk, hard rock, and grunge groups. “I never liked classifications,” Greg Sage, the band’s frontman, singer and guitarist, tells Rolling Stone now. “We were not considered punk because we didn’t try to be. I always liked wearing worn-out flannel; it was my Oregon fashion statement, I guess. I was a rebellious kid my whole life and would always do the exact opposite of what people said I must do to fit in.”
Although the Wipers’ lifespan was short, their disaffected attitude and aesthetics attracted a loyal fanbase while they skillfully avoided mainstream success with album after album of anxious yet perfectly crafted punk songs. On the trio’s forceful yet tuneful 1980 debut LP, Is This Real?, Sage often sounds like the man in the midst of a nervous breakdown, chipping away at his guitar, hopelessly trying to make sense of his life in short, bittersweet blasts. On the propulsive “Mystery,” he posits, “I always try to wonder how it must feel to be real,” and he straddles agony and hope on “Tragedy,” singing, “You’re such a tragedy but don’t ever let go, oh, no,” against hopeful chords. Depending on how he approached a given song, Sage’s voice could sound either confused and vulnerable or downright tortured, as on “Return of the Rat,” and you could sense how on edge he felt from the way he attacked the strings. But however alienated Sage might have felt, he wrote songs that you’d want to sing along with, and they resonated deeply with the Wipers’ future fans and followers.
Nirvana covered two cuts off Is This Real? — faithful renditions of “Return of the Rat” and “D-7,” the latter of which now sounds like a masterclass in the sullen angst and skull-rattling rage Cobain channeled on Nevermind. Turner calls the Wipers one of the “foundational building blocks” of Mudhoney’s sound and adds that they used to refer to their own bass-heavy, noisy number, “No One Has” as “The Wipers Song.” Mudhoney even begged Sage to produce their early recordings, but he turned them down. Jerry A. and Poison Idea paid homage with a revved-up cover of Is This Real?’s “Up Front.” And during the past 40 years, Melvins, Spoon’s Britt Daniel, Hole, Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Yo La Tengo, and Vivian Girls have all covered Wipers songs, keeping the trio’s music alive well after Sage retreated from the public eye in 1999. (The ’92 comp Eight Songs for Greg Sage and the Wipers, which featured some of Nirvana’s and Poison Idea’s covers, acted as a gateway to Sage’s music in the grunge era.)
Sage appreciates how his music has continued to resonate across decades. “I think people that grew up in that time period can relate,” he says. “I put a lot of intense emotions into some of the songs because that was what I was picking up on from a lot of people at that time, but it seems some younger people can relate from what they are experiencing in today’s world.”
Now Sage has given his blessing to a limited-edition, 40th-anniversary reissue of Is This Real?, due out August 29th for Record Store Day via the indie label Jackpot. Why Jackpot? “They’re from Portland where we recorded it,” Sage says, without adding more. But what he leaves out is that he trusts that the label, which has put out past Wipers reissues, would do right by the record. Jackpot has souped-up the release by giving the cover a glossy, reflective sheen, pressing the LP to translucent clear vinyl, throwing in a 45 with four Is This Real? songs the Wipers recorded on a 4-track before the more familiar album sessions, and a concert poster signed by Sage.
Sage now lives in Arizona, tends to the Wipers’ legacy via his own label, Zeno Records, and generally enjoys his privacy. But for the occasion of the Is This Real? reissue, he decided to make a rare exception and open up about the LP’s legacy via an email interview with Rolling Stone. He ignored some questions — “I’m not good at answering personal questions or spilling the beans,” he explains — but he also seemed to enjoy reflecting on the Wipers’ most influential and pivotal album.
In his youth, Sage was fascinated by recording. “I grew up on vinyl,” he says. “I had a professional disc-cutting lathe when I was in grade school and would cut records for kids at my school. I learned a lot by doing that, and it got me interested in playing an instrument. Then I got to put my own sounds into the grooves.”
Even though he was right-handed, he taught himself to play a lefty guitar; he once estimated it took him about two weeks to learn the instrument. In 1971, at age 17, he played on a funky rock album by wrestler Larry Pitchford, who went by Beauregarde, that has become something of a cult record among Sage enthusiasts. He formed the Wipers with bassist Dave Koupal and drummer Sam Henry in 1978, and he concocted their name after washing the windows of a Portland movie theater and noticing how much more clearly he could see the city once he’d wiped them clean. They released their first 45, “Better Off Dead,” which Sage had recorded on his own 4-track in their rehearsal space, on Sage’s own Trap label.
Sage had hoped to do the same with Is This Real? — and even recorded the songs himself — but a label he was working with talked him into re-recording Is This Real? at a professional recording studio in late ’79. “I was planning to do the album on my 4-track,” Sage says. “I was totally good with that. I wanted it to be raw like we were. Somehow, it wasn’t good enough for some [people we worked with], and we were told we needed to record it in a real studio. That is when I started to realize that you can’t always do what you wish in the music world.” He later complained of the studio sounding too dead and feeling duped by the whole record deal.
“I realized from that point forward that everything had to be a compromise,” he says. “If I was wealthy, I could had done better on a few things, but in those days, there were so many chefs trying to stir your stew. I got labeled ‘the black sheep of the industry’ just for trying to keep some independence.”
The original 4-track versions of the songs in the Jackpot reissue reflect an altogether looser sound than the LP. Sage lets his voice warble a little on “Mystery” and has fun with a faux-Brit accent on “Tragedy.” On the 45’s flipside, “Let’s Go Away” has more of a Ramones-style vibe with its driving guitar lines and on “Is This Real?” Sage’s guitar takes on a tinnier tone, like it’s working to be heard, adding to the song’s sense of drama. What inspired him musically at the time, though, is anyone’s guess, since he says, “I didn’t really listen to much during the time I started writing.” Despite his reservations about the Is This Real? sessions, Sage still appreciates the songs as document of his headspace at the time.
“The late Seventies, early Eighties was a transition in time, the ending going into the beginning of a new era,” he says. “I think many people felt this, not knowing what was coming. It caused a sense of uncertainty and alienation in a lot of people that I picked up on over and over. That is where a lot of my song ideas came from then. Even people passing by me would transmit these emotions in a powerful way; it was sort of like seeing auras, but I saw images with colors. It was intense, because I was very precognitive in my youth, I would have visions about the future and some I wrote about.”
Although it would be easy to assume the songs reflect Sage’s personal feelings — “Alien Boy” and “Let’s Go Away” seem to be about loneliness, “Potential Suicide” hints at a personality crisis, and “Up Front” and “Is This Real?” could address bad relationships — that largely wasn’t the case. “My life was different than some of the songs I wrote about, but [they] were in a way something I could relate to,” he says. In his opinion, his songs “spoke mostly for that period of time, with a bit of futuristic views I saw.”
One autobiographical exception to that rule, though, was the slow-building, snarling “Potential Suicide.” The anger and sadness in Sage’s voice as he sings reflects the depression he felt, and the backwards guitar solo he sings over adds to the turmoil. “I wrote that sarcastically as revenge to all the idiots during most of my school years and beyond that would [comment on an undisclosed] condition I suffered with, saying, ‘If that happened to me, I would kill myself.’ I despised those morons and that fucked phrase more than anything else. It was the worst form of bullying. It had no effect on me other than pissing me off because some people could take that statement way too seriously. I had many friends that had killed themselves since grade school and it was hard to understand what emotion drove them to that end, and with some of them, I was the last person they had talked to, which was a very alienating feeling.”
Sage says “D-7” — whose “Dimension Seven” chorus and references to an alien called Zeno make it feel like Twilight Zone material — “came from an out-of-this-world experience,” but he won’t expound on that other than to say, “My life was a sci-fi book.” But he also took inspiration from people he knew; “Alien Boy” and a few other songs came from conversations he had with a friend named James “Jim Jim” Chasse, who was schizophrenic and later died brutally in police custody in 2006. (Chasse’s story was later the subject of a documentary, Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse.) “Most songs had specific stories and sometimes friends behind them that evolved into songs, ‘Alien Boy’ being one,” is all Sage will say these days.
Going back to the beginning of the Wipers, Sage wanted to cultivate an air of intrigue about about the band. When they formed, his plan was never to do interviews or promote the band. “I wanted to do something completely different, be heard not seen, be mysterious,” he says. That desire to hide who he was only added to his legend.
Turner recalls that after the Seattle Wipers gig that he and Arm saw, Sage came off like an outsider. “When the show was done, I remember Greg standing alone outside the Metropolis [venue], kind of leaning a brick building by himself and brooding,” he says. Jerry A. compares Sage to a French poet. “You’d think he was this shy person or a genius — a rock & roll genius — in a corner,” he remembers. “He always had this persona of somebody who is maybe more clued-in than I am. He was a really sweet, warm guy, but when you saw him, he looked standoffish.”
Going back to the beginning, Sage prided himself in being different; Is This Real? was split into “Pos” and “Neg” sides because, he says, “‘Side A’ and ‘Side B’ was so traditional.” He also liked the fact that the Wipers hailed from the Northwest and not a more recognized scene. “In the late Seventies and early Eighties, Portland was considered a logging town by many of the hip outsiders,” he remembers. “There were people in the industry that begged us to say we were from San Francisco or New York, anywhere but Portland. But Portland was a great place to grow up as a kid then.”
“I was proud of them, since it was a hometown thing,” Jerry A. says. “[Before Is This Real?] I’d write to people, trading tapes and records, and I remember telling people about ‘The Wipers,’ and people would be like, ‘The Wipers?’ Like, ‘That name?’ And I was like, ‘Here in Portland, you gotta hear the Wipers. They’re amazing!’ So when Is This Real? came out, I was like, ‘Finally, people will know.’ They had the ‘Better Off Dead’ single out, and that was great, but Is This Real? is everything. It’s a pretty perfect record.”
Asked what he remembers about the Wipers concerts back then, Sage simply says, “They were wild.” But Jerry has a clearer memory. “The live shows were always sweaty and hot and loud,” he says. “Greg just looked like a rock & roller in his bandana and tore-up leather jacket. The bass player, Dave, had a mustache, bellbottoms and cowboy boots, and he just stood there looking totally cool, like somebody you’d see in [the Australian post-punk group] the Birthday Party 10 years later, like Tracy Pew, but not as dressed up. Sam was an amazing drummer; he could play anything. I think they got him from the school of syncopated marching drummers or something; he was, like, a jazz drummer, and he was amazing. They were just three rock guys who knew their chops. They were playing punk rock, but it was more than punk rock. It was punk rock like the Sonics or the MC5.”
The Wipers sound would expand their sound within a year, though, as Sage became the only original member. Henry left the band to join the Rats and Napalm Beach; Koupal stuck around long enough to play on some of the Wipers’ second full-length, the more caustic Youth of America, in 1981, but soon left Portland for Ohio. Sage would go on to put out nine more records under the Wipers moniker and his own name (his all-time favorite, incidentally, is 1987’s quieter Follow Blind) before calling it a day after the 1999 release of the Wipers’ Power in One.
“Times changed, people changed,” Sage explains. “I found it harder to write the way I was used to.
“I didn’t need to stop making music, I wanted to,” he continues. “It was difficult at first because I never quit on anything, but I felt I had done enough over 20-plus years and was satisfied with that. I realized to save my sanity it would be best to just stop than continue fighting to keep some of my independence.”
These days, Sage’s biggest musical obsession is the early work of the K-pop group Day6. “I found them by chance right before their debut, when they were in their teens,” he says. “I think someone emailed me to watch out for them and got my interest. It is hard to find bands that are young, like I was when I got into music, that have talent and can write unique songs. I always felt that modern music was a youth thing, I mean by pioneering new ideas and emotions for their generation. It seems that’s becoming a lost art.”
Sage may have stepped away from making music himself, though, but his legacy continues to blossom without him. “If Greg is following his heart, is happy, and has no regrets, then I salute him,” Jerry A. says. “I think he’s probably happy that people are covering his stuff and feels honored. … Is This Real? captured a time. It’s like looking at a flower and its beauty, and you just can’t deny it; it’s the same with the Wipers. You hear this, and it’ll always be there. Greg should be proud for what he did.”