(Erik Sanko, as photographed by Ian Gittler)
As I’ve been alluding in several recent posts, I’m currently spending large swathes of time way downtown. Essentially, my new office is on the southernmost tip of TriBeCa, bordering Battery Park City to the west and the Financial District to the east (or what some seem to now call Whitehall? Not sure about that). I'd spent a good amount of time in the Triangle Below Canal over the previous decades, but it was pretty rare for me to go further south than Park Row or Barclay Street.
But even when I was loitering around TriBeCa in the late 80’s and into the 90’s, there wasn’t much there. My main reason for initially exploring that neighborhood was my friend Sam, who was “loft-sitting” at this massive space on Vestry Street (as detailed on this ancient post). A couple of years later, my friend Tod (primary songwriter, bass-batterer and mouthpiece for both Cop Shoot Cop and, later, Firewater) set up shop in that very same building on Vestry. The only other person I knew living down there was Erik Sanko, who I’d met through Tod, although I’d already been a fan of his band, Skeleton Key well prior to meeting him. Erik lived over on Greenwich Street in Independence Plaza.
As a result, whenever I’m down in that neck of the woods, I always think back to those three characters. And while Sam now lives in Oregon and Tod now lives in Istanbul, Erik is still firmly rooted in TriBeCa. And right before my first day of work about a month and a half back, who did I run into on Greenwich Street, but Erik Sanko.
As I mentioned above, I’d first heard of Erik by way of his band Skeleton Key, who were easily one of my favorite discoveries of the `90s. Like a hiccupy cross between, say, early Devo and Pussy Galore — or maybe a less scowly Cop Shoot Cop — Skeleton Key made a gloriously skewed-but-tuneful cacophony. Like both C$C and Pussy Galore, the band featured a distinctive percussionist — initially a spiky haired gent named Rick Lee — who smacked the shit out of a variety of found metal implements, among them pots, pans, a fire extinguisher, a child’s red wagon and various other sundry items. In addition to Lee’s clamorous arsenal, the first iteration of the band also featured powerhouse drummer Steve Calhoon. In front of those two were guitarist/vocalist Chris Maxwell and bassist, vocalist, bandleader and former Lounge Lizard Erik Sanko.
That particular line-up of the band recorded an e.p. and one full album — the truly amazing Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon — before attrition started to take its toll, leaving Erik as the only mainstay from the original four. He kept the band going, though, recording two more consistently distinctive albums that retained the band’s signature brand of propulsive rock racket.
I first saw the original line-up of Skeleton Key opening for Man or Astroman at Irving Plaza and was completely blown away. Their sound twitched and jerked and pivoted wildly like some ancient machine affixed with whirring rotors and spewing out steam, only to suddenly plow into torrent of very metal riffage while careening into a wall. I would go on to see them in New York City virtually ever time they performed, from the Westbeth Theatre (gone) in the West Village to the Central Park Bandshell to the Bowery Ballroom to the Village Underground (only a few days after September 11th, 2001) and many spots in between.
Beyond Skeleton Key, though, Erik has a richly impressive musical resume, having played with the Voice of Chunk-era Lounge Lizards, as well as a host of Flaming Pablum favorites like Firewater, Gavin Friday, John Cale, the Melvins and a host of others. When not making music, Erik is a strikingly accomplished artist and puppeteer, specializing in disarmingly lifelike marionettes. Alongside his wife and fellow artist Jessica Grindstaff, Sanko is half of Phantom Limb, a production company devoted to these endeavors.
Here's a little bit about that...
Beyond our timeless mantra of “let’s go get beers,” I asked Erik about submitting — in the tradition of RB Korbet, Fran Powers, Pat Blashill, Chris Egan and Big Paul Ferguson — to a Flaming Pablum interview. Given his status as a native New Yorker, longtime Tribecan, a crazy-cool, badass musician and all-around good guy, he seemed like the perfect subject. Gamely, he obliged.
Here’s how it went....
ALEX: First up, I really want to thank you for doing this. Just to bring your story up to speed, between Skeleton Key, Phantom Limb and your various other projects, you always seem to be up to something interesting (along with being married and a father). What are you up to at the moment, if you’re at liberty to say?
ERIK: Phantom Limb is taking its most recent show "Memory Rings" to UCLA in April so there are both musical and marionette tweaks that need to get done. I start teaching Puppetry at RISD at the end of the month and I'm working with Jeffrey Zeigler (former cellist for the Kronos Quartet) on a series of pieces for solo cello and life-sized marionettes. The pieces are utilizing "numbers stations" and the marionettes will be operated from a balcony over the audience. Surveillance overload.
As I understand it, you’ve lived in Independence Plaza in TriBeCa for many years. How did you end up there? Are you a native New Yorker?
I am indeed a proud native New Yorker. I grew up in Staten Island which when I was a kid made the South Bronx look like fucking Paris. I moved to Tribeca in 1979 when it was still called Hudson Market. It was seedy and desolate then and there wasn't a stroller within a hundred block radius.
When I first started going to TriBeCa circa 1989, it seemed like the most desolate neighborhood in town. Apart from Wetlands Preserve (gone, of course – replaced by a bespoke bedding emporium) and a sorta grungy deli on the corner of Vestry and Hudson (still there, I believe), there didn’t seem to be anything there. I’m reminded of a great photo of your particular strip circa 1975 by Allen Tannenbaum (above). TriBeCa used to seem like the very edge of the city, and now… obviously…things have changed. As a longtime TriBeCa resident, how do you reconcile the changes? Have you ever thought of decamping?
We talk about moving on a regular basis, but only if we were going to move to the country or Denmark. Having said that, it;s easy to be the old guy who complains endlessly saying "When I was a kid it was like this…..!" and I refuse to be that guy. Tribeca has clearly changed, perhaps more than any neighborhood I can think of, but of all the ways it could've gone, this is really pretty great. Sure it has it;s fair share of brain dead, pilates clad trophy brides and their 12 year-old frat boy husbands in "finance" (whatever the fuck that means) but there are still plenty of lovely people, loads of parks, it's clean and safe and it has amazing public schools.
You have a pretty storied musical resume, having served time in the fabled ranks of the Lounge Lizards and played with everyone from James Chance to Gavin Friday to Suzanne Vega to the Melvins to fellow erstwhile TriBeCan Tod [A] in Firewater. Then, of course, there’s the mighty Skeleton Key. Is there are particular chapter you are most proud of?
I was just rewriting my resumé for a grant proposal and I noted that I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone else who can boast playing with Yoko Ono and Run-DMC. Of course I proudest of some of the things we did with Skeleton Key. We were really trying not to be guided by anything other than what we thought was amazing. There was a show The Contortions played in Brighton as part of ATP and somehow the planets aligned that night. I got to play "People Who Died" with Jim Carroll and I shared a mike with Lenny Kaye and I got to play "Give Peace a Chance" with Yoko in front of 10,000 Norwegians.
Do you still stay in touch with the former members of The Lounge Lizards? How about the original line-up of Skeleton Key?
I am still in touch with many former Lizards, it's hard not to, there were over forty people in that band over the years! - I just had lunch with the lovely and talented Billy Martin and I played Gavin Friday's 50 birthday party (with U2 at Carnegie Hall no less!) with Steve Bernstein and Jane Scarpantoni and it was wonderful to see them both. John Lurie however, is a crazy. bitter, mean-spirited creep.
Kind of a loaded question, but – to your mind - is the New York music scene that you cut your teeth in still here? If you were a younger, aspiring musician looking to get involved with something today, do you think you could still find the opportunities here?
No, not even close. When I was young rents were cheap and people moved here to be creative. Jim Jarmusch, James Nares, Richard Edson, all these guys were in bands, making movies, painting etc., and doing them all amazingly well! I don't think people can afford to do that here anymore.
Name three things you miss that have vanished in TriBeCa?
All the spice and dairy warehouses. You couldn't walk down Franklin Street without getting a little woozy from all the different smells. We used to buy 5 pound blocks of cheese for nothing. The pier at the end of Harrison Street. There is still a pier there and it's terrific but the old one was dangerous and full of mystery, There was the original Purple Barge where the Lizards played a gig. It sank the next month. Puffy's Tavern before it got renovated. They kind of squeezed all the idiosyncrasies out of it.
Name three things about TriBeCa that are still here that you cherish?
The Square Diner, Richard Serra and The Ear Inn (though it is technically part of soho)
I want to preface this question by saying that I grew up in the city, and am currently raising my own kids in the city. How do you feel about raising your child in Manhattan?
I am a super proud New Yorker and I hope to raise my daughter with the same sense of curiosity, compassion and cultural awareness my mother raised me and my brother with.
So, there you have it. I'd like to thank Erik for accommodating this silly project. The beers are indeed on me next time.