Monday, May 10th, 2021
Tonight Was Fun: The Quiet Odyssey of Creeper Lagoon
Building Beautiful Sandcastles
May 10, 2021
By Austin Saalman
Photography by Peter Ellenby
“In Cincinnati, Ohio, in the late-’80s, the thing to do was skip school, smoke pot, and trip a lot of acid,” former Creeper Lagoon frontman Ian Sefchick speaks of his formative years, adding, “We went to punk rock shows and read zines.”
Sefchick, a far cry from his midwestern youth, still carries the same wistful eloquence he displayed during his time with the understated San Francisco indie rock outfit he fronted some 20 years ago. “The eldest of the crew we hung out in was a brilliant boy named Aubry who had the best record collection ever,” he recalls. “I remember him bringing a record home called Bleach by a band called Nirvana. He had just seen them at Wizard’s, the local record store that would have shows on the sidewalk in front of the store. It was a literal hole-in-the-wall, but also a portal to the rest of the world outside our small city. We were blown away. It happened like that a lot. There was so much good music coming out of the punk scene. Another genre that was having its day was rap, and we loved it. Music was our life.”
With music being their only escape from the bleak and bored expanse of the Midwest, Sefchick and friends began some experimentation of their own. “We would take beats from the rap records, loop them, and record them to our 4-track cassette mini studio, then write the guitar music over the beats,” Sefchick remembers. “It was a messy cool rock/rap/indie/whatever type of music. This was years before Beck came out with Mellow Gold. We were so, ‘Been there done that!’”
“Growing up in Cincinnati, I did experience a local punk scene,” recalls Sharky Laguana, Creeper Lagoon’s charismatic founder. “The first show I ever really went to of my own accord was to see Black Flag at a total dive called the Jockey Club. You went around to the back, and they said, ‘Are you over 21?’ And you said, ‘Yes.’ I was 16, so clearly not over 21, but that was how it worked, and then they let you in, and you could get into trouble. So, we used to see bands there all the time.”
Although he attended punk rock shows, Laguana has always viewed his musical tastes as aligning with the more experimental, embracing much of the indie and math rock of the time.
“For us, it was Dinosaur Jr., Meat Puppets, and The Flaming Lips. I remember seeing Flaming Lips with like five people in the audience and they came up with a bubble machine and the bass player controlled the entire light show with foot petals. It was amazing. You know, weird shit, not sort of classic punk rock. So, a lot of art rock, right? The first record I ever bought with my own money was Talking Heads’ Little Creatures. We all went to art school, so it was of a piece and of a kind to be into really weird and strange music relative to what everybody else was listening to.”
“Sharky was a year or two older than me,” Sefchick recalls. “We had been in a couple bands back in Cincinnati, but never got serious until we met back up in San Francisco after moving out there at different times. He was in a hard rock band called Bandersnatch. It was pretty cool.”
“I knew him before his voice changed,” Laguana says, recalling his earlier meeting with Sefchick. “I remember him as being this squeaky voiced little kid. He was my best friend’s little brother’s best friend, and he was two or three years younger than me. So, he was just this funny kid and we would all hang out and get into trouble.”
Despite their difference in age, Sefchick and Laguana shared a certain bond over music.
“We had a sort of very specific chemistry that worked really well right out of the gate and you could kinda tell,” Laguana says of Sefchick, before adding, “I think I was more aggressive about wanting to take [the band] some place and do something with it. Ian was more into not wanting to be in a band with another guitar player. His hero is Jimi Hendrix. We all sort of grew up with a concept of what sort of a band we wanted to be in, and his idea was to be in a three-piece, and since I wasn’t a bassist or a drummer, I had nothing to contribute to that. But you also can’t deny that we had a sort of unique way of playing together that worked really well.”
After leaving Cincinnati in the early ’90s, Laguana describes his existence during this period “as very circuitous,” crisscrossing the American South from Florida to Texas.
“Originally, I was going to go back to this Hindu monastery with this girl that I was crazy about, and she dumped me the day we got there. So, I hitchhiked to San Francisco.”
Arrivig in Northern California, Laguana found himself broke and alone. “I didn’t have a dime, didn’t have any place to stay, I slept under park benches. Eventually I had to pawn a PA I was carting around with me and I realized I had no place to put it. It was worth about a hundred bucks.”
The hndred dollars bought Laguana a week in a single-room occupancy hotel. “From there,” Laguana recalls, “it was a race every week to make a hundred bucks. Sometimes that was really difficult, and sometimes I was late on the rent, and then eventually, I was homeless again for a while, but I did have a band rehearsal space, so I’d sleep at the rehearsal space.”
With early impressions of the city depicting similar shades of grey as those within himself, Laguana goes on to describe the sense of culture shock to his Midwestern sensibilities. “San Francisco in the early ’90s was not like San Francisco now. It was not wealthy…I mean, it was expensive, but Tech really hadn’t jump-started yet. Mostly what I remember is a lot of beaten up and downtrodden Victorian apartments and drafty rooms and it was cold and it felt like everybody was struggling, but it probably just seemed that way because I lived and worked in a hotel where everybody was struggling. But it was still a pretty vibrant musical scene. My big challenge was that I came here, and I didn’t know anybody. San Francisco was a bigger scene and I had no money. Money is a great lubricant for meeting people, [but] from ’91 till about ’97/’98, I didn’t have any money and was just hand-to-mouth, so mostly, I just hung out by myself. I’d sell blood to buy burritos,” he adds. “That was a big moneymaker for me.”
Living and working at one of San Francisco’s Civic Center Hotels, Laguana found himself amassed by the same hopelessness and destitution in which he himself had been living since his departure from Ohio. He watched MTV, listened to Nick Drake, and attended the occasional free show, “like any young man who was lonely and disaffected, cut off from family and friends, had no money, very deeply depressed…naturally I gravitated towards music that appeals to people who are deeply depressed,” he recalls with a laugh.
Spending his free time making 4-track recordings and quietly observing the hotel’s shadowy occupancy, a deeply depressed Laguana came to a realization.
“Everything was awful and all the people around me in this hotel shared bathrooms. There’d be one bathroom in the hallway for, like, 10 different people. Most of the people there had drug issues, mental health issues, or were very creepy people. It was sort of this cesspool. Somewhere along the line, I thought ‘it’s like a creeper lagoon.’ It was like an internal nickname I had for where I lived and worked, and at some point it was like, ‘that’s a band name!’
“I always wanted to be in a band,” he adds. “I was so lonely. I didn’t want to be a solo artist. I also knew I wasn’t talented enough to be a solo artist. So I just started calling my solo stuff Creeper Lagoon, kind of assuming the sale.”
Through friend and early bandmate Bush Brengleman, Laguana was introduced to cassette label Shrimper.
“It was literally these two guys and they would ‘sign’ artists to their label. They’d get the recording on cassette and put the recording on one side of a dual cassette, and they’d make a copy on the other duals, on the other cassette. And then they’d sell the second cassette. You didn’t really get any money for being on their label, you just got the privilege of being on their label,” Laguana chuckles.
“I put out a couple of cassettes, one on Shrimper and another on a little cassette label called Slabco, and it was totally manual tape loops and scratchings and different experiments. I would go to the pawnshop and buy these reel-to-reel tape players and use them until they broke and go buy another one. So I was making these 4-tracks and this guy in Boston had this label and he sent me a postcard and said, ‘Hey, I’d like to put out your music.’”
Around this time, Laguana’s flat had been demolished by a fire, leaving him and his roommates with some money from a settlement. “It was a huge sum for me, like 800 dollars. I couldn’t believe I had 800 dollars. I bought this crazy huge eight-track about the size of a coffee table and it probably took up maybe a fifth of my room. So, my room was a bed, an eight-track, and like four square feet of standing space. I would always kind of chuckle when they said, ‘bedroom rock,’ because, literally, I’d be sitting on my bed recording. So, I made those songs and I got a cheap little sampler. I loved it, because now I didn’t have to have tape running around a reel to reel. I sampled that Neil Young record [1972’s ‘Out on the Weekend’]. It had that very simple beat. Of course, I didn’t get anybody’s permission, because at the time, nobody knew you were supposed to do that.
“So I made my little songs and I sent them out and he printed off a hundred singles and sent me 10. And I was so proud, and of those 90 singles, one of them wound up in this little record shop in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. Luke [Wood] was a young and hungry A&R guy for David Geffen Company Records, DGC, which was Nirvana’s label. He walked into the record store and said to the store owner, ‘What’s good? What are you impressed by?’ And the guy handed him my single and said, ‘This is what I’m really into right now.’”
As fate would have it, Wood was taken with Laguana’s effort. “One day I go to the PO Box and there’s a letter, and on the return address is that stamped 3D logo of the DGC, and I’m like, ‘what the fuck is this?’ I open it up and it’s on DGC stationary and it’s like, ‘hey, I don’t know who you are…but I love your single and I’d love to make records with you.’ I’m like 26, 27, I’m starting to think that I’m failing at life, like music isn’t going anywhere, this isn’t working out…and I just burst into tears. Right there in the post office. It was like in Willy Wonka, opening up the golden ticket.”
Laguana’s proverbial ticket, the lachrymose “Tonight Was Fun,” cemented him as an up-and-coming indie pop balladeer. While certain purists may scoff at his bold use of a Neil Young sample for his lo-fi love ballad, they do so while forgetting that Neil was himself an early pioneer of the lo-fi love ballad. Lyrically, “Tonight Was Fun” is not dissimilar to Young’s own “Harvest.”
Now officially willed into existence, Sharky Laguana was set on seeing Creeper Lagoon expand. “Ian came out to visit from Ohio,” Laguana continues. “I’d been trying to sweet talk him into a band for a long time now and he just wasn’t having it. He wanted to be in the three piece. I showed him the letter and was like, ‘dude, we could do this.’ He didn’t jump at it right away, but you could see the wheels spinning. He went back to Ohio, but then he came back two weeks later and he had a demo tape with ‘Dear Deadly’ on it and ‘Tracy.’ And I’m like, ‘Dude, let’s go,’ and he was like, ‘Alright, let’s do this.’” (Both “Dear Deadly” and “Tracy” would appear on Creeper Lagoon’s debut LP I Become Small and Go).
Sefchick officially joined Creeper Lagoon, promptly relocating from Ohio to San Francisco, where he began to absorb all that the city had to offer. “I went to crazy parties in SF and even met Kirk Hammet [of Metallica]. He told me how much money he makes every time he pushes his wah wah pedal down once!”
Sefchick also spent a brief time with prolific San Francisco indie pioneers The Brian Jonestown Massacre. “I was only in the band for a short time and played a couple of shows. Long enough to get to know Anton [Newcomb] and his manager at the time. At the time, Anton was totally sane, and we actually got along well, we were just musically different,” Sefchick recalls. “We both liked My Bloody Valentine a lot, but that was the only real connection. I was more of a Fugazi type of guy, he was more of a Rolling Stones type of guy.”
“We spent the next three years trying to get signed,” Laguana continues. “It was not overnight. First, we had to put together demos, I had to put together a band, then we had to play shows, then we had to get good, and all of those things were really, really hard. And because we were such a unique, kind of quirky band, it wasn’t like there was a scene that we just tapped into. We were building this artistic work brick by brick.”
In 1997, Creeper Lagoon released their self-titled EP, featuring an early demo of “Dear Deadly,” as well as several other tracks to appear on the subsequent LP release.
From the beginning, the group’s creative process was not a Lennon-McCartney partnership between Creeper Lagoon’s central songwriters, but from “either me or Sharky writing demo songs in our bedrooms, then bringing them to the practice room and flushing em’ out with the band,” as Sefchick puts it. “The songs we sang were the songs we wrote. We never sang each other’s songs and rarely collaborated fully in the first drafts of any song. Me and Sharky were very competitive, or at least I was competitive.”
During this period, Creeper Lagoon were coming of age in a crucial era for West Coast indie rock, rubbing elbows with an assortment of budding bands, many of whom would continue on to major careers and influential outputs. “Death Cab [for Cutie’s] first show in San Francisco was opening up for us at the Great American Hall. Ben’s [Gibbard] even covered one of our songs once in concert [1998’s ‘Wonderful Love’]. I know Ben. He’s a nice guy. Friendly and super sweet,” Laguana states.
“We played a bunch of shows with Modest Mouse,” says Laguana. “There are some parallels, I guess, with their approaches to music. There’s sort of a certain ‘noodliness’ to how we look at things. Their early stuff was definitely conveying a ‘vibe,’ but I felt like the songwriting was loose and sloppy. That was just my take on it. Of course, they were much more popular and successful than we were, so it’s not for me to say, ‘Oh they were this and we were that.’”
Over the following months, the group’s bricks had formed a foundation solid enough to shoulder the weight of larger endeavors, so they entered the studio to record what was immediately hailed by critics as their masterpiece.
“The I Become Small and Go stuff was a combination of studio recordings and 4-track recordings. Piecing and weaving together, chopping and editing, and doing some very early digital music stuff,” says Laguana, depicting the “kitchen sink” method behind the group’s hazy and fragmentary debut LP. “And then The Dust Brothers got involved and that was all paid for by a major label, but we were pretending like it was indie, because at the time indie versus major was like a whole big thing in the music industry…which is so crazy how nobody gives a shit about that now.”
Released on Nickelbag Records, I Become Small and Go was met with modest sales and an abundance of critical praise, with the readers of Spin Magazine awarding Creeper Lagoon Best New Artist of 1998. “That was the most exciting time in my life other than my daughter being born,” Sefchick recalls of the record’s success.
“So, we get all these things,” Laguana explains. “We made this record, and people, critics especially, loved the record. For all of those reasons, it wasn’t tilting towards any one thing. There was no single genre, there was no single mood or vibe. It kind of wandered all over the place, and yet it felt coherent and all of a whole…and that’s a really hard trick to pull off.”
All-in-all, Laguana is absolutely right. I Become Small and Go is a vast cornucopia of sonic experimentation, genre defiance, and heavily textured madness. Across the span of its 12 tracks, the listener is never once mistreated to the misfortune of redundancy to which pop records of its era were so often partial.
Opening track “Wonderful Love” comes seeping in with its glimmering aquatic hush and neo-psychedelic drone, while the subsequent “Tracy” is a weary gloomfest during which Sefchick declares that he is “tired of Satan’s company,” as we are treated to grandiose visions of lovers seated “naked on casino floors” and “cool hands of mercury.”
Fan-favorite “Dear Deadly” is treated to a more danceable mix, while EP favorite “Sylvia” remains largely untouched. “Prison Mix” is an exotic and multilayered looped instrumental, while “Drink and Drive” is a fuzzed-out, half-slurred tale of death which fails not to evoke the living ghost of Nick Cave.
The heartache of “Second Chance” spins a narrative near and dear to the soul of Sharky Laguana, who explains, “I asked Ian to join the band, he said no. I wrote that song about my feelings about that. Like, ‘Come on. Don’t say no, say yes.’”
“Usually most bands, especially in [the] Bay Area…there was a lot of pop punk,” Laguana laments. “It’s a formula and everything is just one note, one vibe. We’ve got samples of Bolivian sheep farmers singing, mixed with more Pixie-esque kind of rock and roll. Who the fuck knows what ‘Dreaming Again’ is? What even is that? Would you call it, like…”
“Dreaming Again” is another of Creeper Lagoon’s crowning achievements, as well as the finest track on I Become Small and Go. Sonically, it embodies the entire record—romantic, melancholic, disorienting, hazy, fuzzy, feverish, raw, trippy, somnolent, complex, and perhaps even deep.
Regarding the record’s surprise success among critics, Sefchick comments, “The record industry was drunk on ‘grunge’ and looking for the next big band. Indie rock was a new profit center ever since Nevermind came out. It was before streaming and before the record industry took a dump after MP3’s killed physical media.”
“My other quip about it is that the critics adored us, the public ignored us,” Laguana finishes his account. “We were doing very quirky stoner rock at a time when it was all about Limp Bizkit. We were kind of ahead of our time.
“It pretty much guarantees that you’re going to have a hard time finding an audience,” Laguana postulates. “On the flip side, we hold our own place. The downside of being a voice of the people or capturing a mood of a particular cohort of people at a certain time is that you become part of that time. I think our intent was different. We were building beautiful sandcastles. Rather than reporters, we were painters, and we were taking a more abstract approach. What I was always looking for was a deep resonant connection on a human level, rather than a generational level, or a class level.”
The critical success of I Become Small and Go garnered fresh interest in the San Francisco quartet as they made their rounds.
“We were being courted by all the big labels,” Sefchick recalls of the time. “We were being flown to NYC, wined and dined in the fanciest restaurants in every city we went to. I never had a filet mignon until that wonderful moment. We felt like absolute stars. There was still an innocent naivety that made everything so special. Each new phone call from a new label was cause for a band meeting which was just a bunch of young guys dreaming out loud in a crummy practice room. We were all poor as dirt which made the whole situation so much more vivid.”
“We were doing all the right things at all the right times,” Laguana concurs. “We were going on tours with all the right bands in all the right places. [The label] thought we were where we needed to be. We were laying the groundwork for what was going to be a bigger house, so to speak. They felt good about the foundation we were laying, and as a result, they were willing to invest in Take Back [the Universe and Give Me Yesterday],” Laguana explains. “And Take Back was a huge investment.”
“Our initial vision was that we were gonna do a Led Zeppelin ‘hole up in a farmhouse and make a brilliant record,” Laguana reminisces. “We were all fans of this idea that we were all gonna have this beautiful, idyllic time in the country and be super-bonding. So, we bought all this recording gear and we went out and asked our management company to find us a farm somewhere to rent. So, they found us this ostrich farm up in Ione, California.”
Much to their surprise, the group’s Sierra Nevada Eden had since withered. Reveals Laguana, “It was this very smelly farm that all the ostriches had just left…it went out of business or something. So, it’s just ostrich feathers and ostrich shit everywhere. The house was full of rodents, so mice everywhere. It was a dump. It was like being in a dilapidated suburban house from the ’70s or something. Mold in the shower, that kind of stuff. It did not feel luxurious.”
Despite their aspiration toward warm washes of emotional, spiritual, and creative ingenuity amongst fellow bandmates, unpleasantries abound faced Creeper Lagoon in such hours of vulnerability, rendering the process of productivity trying, to say the least. “We got these plagues that came through,” remembers Laguana. “This plague of locusts. Literally, you couldn’t walk anywhere without stepping on a bunch of crickets. And then it was like a plague of mosquitoes. It was baking hot and the home did not have functioning AC. And so it was too hot to think or work. So we would just lay around and sleep most of the day, maybe do something for an hour or two when we [awoke] in the evening. Then before you knew it, Ian was off to the bar and we were off to the bar with him to make sure he didn’t die. Somehow, we made some demos while we were there, but it was still sort of convoluted and it wasn’t what we were picturing. It was generally not a positive experience for any of us.”
Further disappointment came after an offer from Luke Wood, who notified the group that an opportunity had arisen for their song to appear at the end credits of an upcoming Kevin Spacey film.
“We made this incredible recording of [The Beatles’ ‘Because’],” explains Laguana. “It was probably the best recording we made while we were there. We spent like three days on it. Busted our ass, humped and made this beautiful cover, sent it in. T-Bone Burnett loved it, said, ‘This is fantastic.’ We were like, ‘Great, we got it. We’re going to get this movie.’ And then fucking Elliott Smith came out of nowhere and said, ‘I want to do it.’ He had just been nominated for an Academy Award for Good Will Hunting, so everybody was like, ‘Sorry Creeper, just wasn’t your time.’”
Despite the group’s various run-ins with misfortune, a sudden sense of fondness crosses Sharky Laguana’s voice, “But there were occasional moments of extreme beauty. [Drummer] Dave Kostiner and I would go up on the roof of the house and watch the sunset. It was just these gorgeous rolling hills and there was a pond. We would sit up there and crack jokes. Even some of our adventures with the local townsfolk were funny and memorable,” he says.
Upon Creeper Lagoon’s return to civilization, tensions were high in their San Francisco rehearsal space. Money had been spent, time was slipping away, and “everybody was mad at us because we hadn’t done jackshit all summer…the record label was like, ‘Come on guys, time’s-a-wastin’!’”
With a “good five or six songs,” as opposed to the full-length record the group had promised to write in Ione, Creeper Lagoon immediately began their search for a producer.
“We were interviewing a lot of different people and meeting with a lot of different people. I remember meeting with this guy who produced all these metal bands and being like, ‘What the fuck? Why are we even talking to this guy?’ Then there were people we wanted to make records with, and they declined,” Laguana says.
Eventually, the group managed to land their ‘by and large’ first choice, producer Dave Fridmann.
“Dave Fridmann was where we took care of our more psychedelic instincts, and boy that was like a journey into the heart of darkness, because we were in Buffalo, New York, in the studio, there was six feet of snow, you couldn’t go anywhere or do anything,” Laguana remembers. “We’re all holed up in the studio, and this is after years of being all holed up together everywhere we went anyway, so there was no place to go, there was no bar for Ian to go to, and so we just got into this very dark and depressed place. Just feeling like everything we were doing was shit, and the album was shit, and everything was shit. The band was going to break up before it even came out.”
In the studio, a number of fellow producers, including Greg Wells, Mark Trombino, Jerry Harrison, Rick Stone, and Creeper Lagoon themselves, were brought in to assist with each diverse aspect of the record.
From Buffalo to Los Angeles and back to the Bay Area, the group recorded in various studios, eventually landing at The Record Plant in Sausalito, where Fleetwood Mac and Sly & the Family Stone had cut much of Rumours and There’s a Riot Goin’ On, respectively.
While there, Laguana found Sacramento alternative metal outfit Deftones recording their seminal White Pony.
“So, I walk over to their room and it’s like every band’s the same. Nothing to do with their time and they’re just sitting around waiting for their moment to do whatever they’re supposed to do. So I was just sitting there for hours smoking pot with them, meanwhile our record budget is fifteen hundred dollars an hour at this incredible studio. Literally, every bong hit is costing a hundred dollars.”
Eventually, Creeper Lagoon came out on the other end, with a final product in hand and greater aspirations in mind.
“Somehow, we got all that shit done and got it to a place where we made it and turned it in and then it was going through the process and we started going on tours with bands to start to promote it, but we were in this really weird zone, like things were about to take off or could take off, but are they gonna take off? Is it really happening? We had some songs that we thought could be hits, but you kind of need the ball to bounce the right way,” says Laguana.
Released June 4, 2001, Take Back the Universe and Give Me Yesterday served as the group’s vow to remain inconsistent and one step ahead. A record bright and beguiling enough to warrant an early-summer release, much of I Become Small and Go’s murk had since been scrubbed away to reveal the body of a sleek, chrome machine.
Yet the record remains true to Creeper’s earliest influences. The deafening percussive strike force 28 seconds into opening cut, “Chance of a Lifetime,” and swirling snarls of electric guitar throughout the subsequent “Wrecking Ball” serve as honest throwbacks to Sefchick and Laguana’s punk rock days on the streets of Cincinnati, while the danceable beat of the otherwise ghostly “Sunfair” harken back to Sefchick’s early years spent experimenting with tape from his favorite albums. The rough and tumble heat of “Up All Night,” Sefchick’s nightmarish testament to the party life, offers the record a certain grit, proclaiming, “I ran around with my head cut off/and it was frightening to say the least.”
The shimmering psychedelia of “Naked Days” offers a moody portrait of jealousy and confusion, abundant metaphors abound. It is also one of the record’s best cuts, with Sefchick proclaiming, “I will complicate all I meet/saying life is good and death is sweet.” As the song fades out, Sefchick repeats, “All this in vain, no wonder I’m old again.”
The irony of Take Back the Universe and Give Me Yesterday, however, is its outstanding debt to American youth culture. While Laguana and Sefchick contemplate themes of age and mortality, they are doing so on a record made especially for young folks with broken hearts and high tolerances who are, in turn, also likely contemplating age and mortality before their time. They roam nighttime streets, smoke cigarettes through open windows while “Keep From Moving,” the album’s epic gospel-tinged centerpiece, sounds from a bedroom stereo behind them. Here, every Creeper Lagoon listener is summed up in a single line, “Look how awkwardly strange we are in our plain ways.”
However, the record’s most important track is also one of its most recognizable.
Misattributed to Coldplay on popular music torrenting site Frostwire a decade ago, the ethereal “Under the Tracks” is the album’s leading force. Some of these lyrics are among Sefchick’s greatest. There is plenty here to ease the pain of any ongoing teenage existential crises, from, “You’ll start to shake, your friends will sweat/you are high, you will forget” and “She is afraid ‘cause you are dying/but you have got your peace of mind.” However, the ultimate moment of Sefchick’s otherworldly ponderings arrives as the oddly comforting, “And we were born of yellow sand/there is no plan, there is no end.”
In reality, “Under the Tracks” was actually “a premonition of the band falling apart,” according to Sefchick. “I was always all things towards Sharky that brothers fighting for attention from a parent (the public and record label) would be. Jealousy, anger, love, bitterness. The snake was my bandmate and what was slipping through my hands was a creative utopian dream.”
Dave Fridmann’s hand for sheer psychedelia is given its proper dues on the record’s penultimate track, the mellowed out “Lover’s Leap,” which features Laguana’s spacey baritone, flickering against a backdrop of an entirely new summer dream, textures rich and droning, spaces wide and ceilings high as Laguana murmurs at last,
“That’s one of my favorite things we ever did,” Laguana says of the track. “We never covered it, because it’s impossible to cover.”
The album’s closing track is by far its most enchanting—a dusky ballad with, whether conscious or unconscious, suspicious Beach Boys leanings, and a final plea from Laguana to his friend and bandmate, perhaps for that of a “third” chance. It also arrived as a fairly unusual collaborative effort between two of Creeper Lagoon’s driving forces.
“I remember working on ‘Here We Are’ and presenting that to Ian. He really connected with that one,” says Laguana.
When asked of its meaning, considering its many allusions to death and dying, Laguana replies almost instantly, “It’s about the death of the band. Because you could see it coming. It was so clear it was coming. I mean, I was writing ‘Here We Are’ and Ian was writing ‘Up All Night.’ I was worried about trying to keep everything going and keeping it all alive, and he was worried about, like, ‘Let’s go party.’ So I hated ‘Up All Night.’ Now I love it, I think it’s a great song, but at the time, ‘Up All Night’ was like, ‘Hey, let’s shoot up heroin and wither away and die.’ Let’s not do that! We have our record label spending a million dollars, why would we do that? Come on, dude!”
After a moment, he adds, “So many of our songs are about the band and the tension we had with each other. I mean, so many of them.”
To promote the record, Creeper Lagoon toured with a number of groups, including Harvey Danger, with Spoon as an opening act. “Spoon threw a temper tantrum on the last show,” recalls Laguana. “They were just so tired of playing to nobody, and they put mustard all in the pockets of Harvey Danger’s coats…which was kind of a dick move. But we had fun together.
“Then we did a tour with that adjunct of The Brian Jonestown Massacre [The Dandy Warhols], and that guy was so full of himself, but you know, they definitely could draw people. We had some good shows with them.
“Meanwhile, we’re out there promoting this record, and promoting a record is endless. It’s exhausting. You’re on the road for like eight, nine months. If you’re home, you’re home for like a week. You get up in the morning to do radio interviews at seven a.m., which is an ungodly hour, because you went to bed at two or three a.m. So we were just slagging it out for this record, just in a constant state of exhaustion, and that was a big part of what led to the band falling apart—the combination of exhaustion, plus drug abuse, plus sort of general struggling with mental health.”
Laguana exhales before quoting Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.”
“‘They paved paradise/put up a parking lot,’” he reflects. “I knew what I had, but I also knew I had a ticking time bomb. I knew that what we had was not going to last forever, and that we were going to break up because of mental health or drug abuse or alcohol abuse…one of those things was gonna take us down. It was never stable enough to feel like it was gonna last. So, it was always ‘How much can we do before it breaks?’”
As the scene around Laguana seemed to shift and fall apart, relations within the group began to deteriorate, as well.
“Ian really had some serious substance abuse issues…I was smoking a lot of pot; I was self-medicating. I would dive into deeper things—occasionally,” Laguana confesses. “But for Ian, that was really a siren call that he could not ignore. It was compelling for him, and it was clear that that was not a problem that could be addressed or repaired within the context of a functioning musical band trying to compete in a highly competitive landscape with all the temptations and unlimited boredom.
“Being in a band under pressure is like being in any tight unit under pressure. You can pick your parallel to people training to go to the moon or what have you, but it’s a pressure cooker, you’re squished in together, you’re inseparable by force and you’re dealing with incredibly difficult emotional issues and stress and worry…it’s awful, but also beautiful when you’re in it. You just put so much pressure on it until it crystallizes and then somehow it becomes beautiful…but only after a long period of time.”
The growing tension between Sefchick and Laguana finally boiled over while in England later that year.
“Ian just wanted to go solo and he was just done,” Laguana. “We were on tour in the UK and he disappeared for a couple days—in the middle of the tour! Had no idea where he was. It was just, ‘Where the hell is he?’ Waiting for him to call me from some payphone to pick him up, which is exactly what happened. This wasn’t necessarily anything unique to us, I mean, this is the same kind of shit Nirvana went through…the only thing we had going for us, in hindsight, was that Ian didn’t die. And that’s been a blessing from my perspective, but seen from the perspective of the record label, they probably would have preferred he died.
“So at the time we had all this expensive recording equipment we’d bought, we had a very cheap van, and the band name. We were in a hotel in England and I wrote it on a piece of napkin, the breakup agreement, because he was just like, ‘I don’t want to do this with you guys anymore’— meaning me, basically. I don’t think he had a huge problem with Dave or Stan. I was like, ‘You can have everything, just I’m gonna take the van.’ And the reason I took the van was because I was sure he was gonna kill somebody with it. Not intentionally. Just, there was so much drunk driving. I was like, ‘I’ll take the name and the van and you can have everything else.’ That was how we split it up.”
“I never felt like it was my band, even though I wrote and sang most of the more mainstream-sounding songs,” Sefchick confesses 20 years later. “I always thought Sharky’s songs were better than mine. Still do!”
Just as he had upon his initial arrival in San Francisco a decade prior, Sharky Laguana found himself alone in the cold once more. “I had to fly home alone. It was devastating. It was all of my hopes and dreams, and also how I made my money. It was my career and everything, I was now 30 years old and I had a high school degree and I knew how to play guitar. I was too old to really think seriously about having a serious professional career…although I did take another stab at it and it didn’t happen.”
Despite any acrimony and the group’s eventual split occurring overseas, Take Back the Universe and Give Me Yesterday and its predecessor brought Creeper Lagoon a handful of small successes in the form of movie soundtracks and infrequent critical recognition.
Writing for Rolling Stone, writer and producer Greg Heller ranked Take Back the Universe and Give Me Yesterday as the 10th best album of 2001, declaring it “a monument to implosion laced with glimmering hits that will never be.”
The year of Take Back’s release, “Wrecking Ball” appeared in Cameron Crowe’s underrated psychodrama Vanilla Sky and “Wonderful Love” in an episode of The Sopranos, while “Under the Tracks” was featured in Jake Kasdan’s teen comedy Orange County the following year. “Wrecking Ball” then reemerged several years later in Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 Hellboy.
Several prominent artists, including Ben Gibbard, have cited I Become Small and Go as a significant entry in the ’90s indie canon.
However, aside from such tidbits of acknowledgement, Creeper Lagoon seemed to slip back into the haze of obscurity from which they had only briefly managed to escape temporarily.
“My first job after that,” Laguana says, “was getting paid 10 dollars an hour to break apart CDs for Music.com. I had to break apart CDs, take out the artwork, and put it in an album, so that they could prove they actually bought the music they were streaming. It was the most depressing job I’ve ever had in my entire life. [Laughs] It was just like, ‘I have sunk down from making CDs to breaking them.’
“The silver lining here is that the band breaking up was the best thing that ever happened to any of us,” his admission arrives with a certain frankness. “I think all of us came out better for it. I’m really, really grateful that we didn’t have more success. I have friends that became successful and I see what that does to you, I see what that does to your relationships, I see what that means for your personal life, and you know what? It’s a shitty deal.”
Under his Creeper Lagoon moniker, Sharky Laguana released another EP in 2002, the “back-to-the-basics” Remember the Future. Of the group’s three major EPs, it remains by far the best, with “There’s a New Girl” and “The Way It Goes” hitting home every time. “I got into music because I wanted to make music,” Laguana adds as a final thought. “But when you’re a professional musician, making music is actually one of the very few things you do. Most of what you do is sit around and wait. The amount of actual music-making you do is very minimal…I still to this day love music, but I love making music when I want to make music, not because I have to make music. When you have to make music, now you have to introduce a whole new filter to your art.”
In 2006, Laguana released Long Dry Cold, Creeper Lagoon’s final album, before fading out to focus on his more successful endeavor: small business proprietorship. Laguana’s rental service Bandago offers reasonably priced passenger vans with high class amenities to touring bands, as well as businesses, sports teams, and families on the go. Begun in Laguana’s hometown of San Francisco, Bandago has since expanded to locations in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Austin, Portland, Nashville, and Miami, among others.
In 2019, he was elected President of the San Francisco Small Business Commission, with the San Francisco Examiner publishing a 2020 article on him with the tag, “From Street Performer and ‘Drifter’ to Small Business Champion.” He has also been a vocal proponent of the rights of local business owners in the face of theft and property crimes. He has also entered San Francisco politics, currently seeking office as a member of the Rise Together slate, a diverse and driven coalition of local Progressive Democrats seeking to attain a higher quality of life for all San Franciscans.
Meanwhile in Hollywood, Ian Sefchick’s trade school education in electrical engineering had landed him at Capitol Records, where he moved from studio tech to cutting vinyl, eventually becoming a mastering engineer. He would go on to receive a Grammy nomination for Gregg Allman’s final record. On watching younger bands on their way down the same tumultuous road he once travelled, Sefchick acknowledges the notes of nostalgic irony from his position on the opposite end of the industry.
With his technical expertise, Sefchick formed a company building and designing custom audio gear for producers and engineers, themselves passing through the same historic studios. Eventually, Sefchick’s venture burgeoned into Magic Death Eye, a boutique audio equipment company, which continues to grow in reputation.
Due to Sefchick and Laguana’s personal and professional engagements, a Creeper Lagoon reunion seemed entirely unlikely over the decade-and-a-half following their break-up, until late-2016, when the group announced a set of reunion performances at San Francisco’s Bottom-of-the-Hill and Los Angeles’s The Echo.
“One of the band’s biggest fans is probably my wife [Naomi Laguana, co-host of the podcast Housewifery],” Laguana explains the group’s decision to reunite.
Naomi, once A&R for Slash Records, had once attempted to sign Creeper Lagoon, leading her to maintain a “deep, crazy emotional connection with the music right out of the gate.” The two would develop a romantic relationship a couple years later.
“So, [Naomi] had been pushing for the band to do some reunion shows for basically 20 years,” he continues. “After the band broke up, I had a lot of hurt feelings, as you can imagine. I just really didn’t have much to say to Ian. I was sort of angry and upset about the lost opportunity. I felt like I had to start all over and it took me a long time to find my own path and feel okay about what I was doing and building.”
At first Laguana refused his wife’s request. “I was always like, ‘No I won’t do it and there’s no way Ian would do it.’ Somehow, she managed to talk to Ian, have some kind of conversation with him and talked him into doing it. I hadn’t spoken to Ian in 17, 18 years, so when I picked up the phone and called, of course it was just like any old friend. It was like we’d never spent a day apart. We had some great conversations. Got caught up on what was going on with each others’ lives. And then we decided to pull the trigger and do it.”
As the years had grown between each member and the group’s last rehearsal, Creeper Lagoon rehearsed individually before regrouping once in Los Angeles, then in San Francisco.
“Part of becoming older meant that we could manage our personal selves better, our relationships to each other better, and also our relationship to the music better,” Laguana says of collaborating for the first time in 16 years. “We were a lot more efficient—first, we really, really enjoyed being together. Just an amazing feeling. Second, because we weren’t 20-something fuckups who’d actually put in the work to learn the material and rehearse it properly away from the band, we were far tighter.”
Los Angeles and San Francisco sold out. Creeper Lagoon had quickly returned to its groove. Then, 2,000 miles across the country, Sharky Laguana had a revelation.
“We did one show about a month later in New York, and by the time we did that show, I would look you dead in the eye and say that we were one of the best bands in America. That we had never been better as a band, had never played better as a band. That I felt invulnerable as a musician, like you could shoot a gun and the bullets would have bounced right off of me. I felt so incredibly secure in the strength of the music, which is just the most joyous, intoxicating feeling. That intoxicating feeling, as we hit the stage in New York, just immediately encapsulated the audience, as well. When you have an audience and music and artists all on the same wavelength, it’s just extraordinary. It’s a religious experience. The show was essentially flawless from our perspective.”
Trembling footage of Creeper Lagoon’s reunion performances, which occurred in early-2017, depicts a quartet of amiable gentlemen, both pleasant and comfortable in their own skin. They banter back and forth between songs, the brunt of which have been drawn from Take Back the Universe and Give Me Yesterday. They play the favorites, throwing in a convincing cover of “Where is My Mind?” for good measure. Once again, Laguana is correct—the sound is solid, Creeper’s performance is damn-near perfect.
The most telling moment of the reunion occurs during Creeper’s appearance at Noise Pop, just prior to breaking into “Dear Deadly,” when Laguana speaks into his microphone, “If you are one of our children and you have a VIP pass FamClub badge, please come to the stage now for a dance party.” Soon, a group of youths flood the stage, children of the band. They dance as their fathers jam to a song they recorded when they were my age. My old friends Ian and Sharky, for so long 27 years old in my mind, now husbands and fathers playing the music they love because they want to play it.
“Our 20th anniversary of being married is today [New Year’s Eve 2020],” Laguana informs me, as though hammering my revelation home for good. Incidentally, his proposal to Naomi had occurred at a Creeper Lagoon show.
The highlight of the tour came at Noise Pop when the audience saw Laguana ease into a performance of “Tonight Was Fun,” the first time since the song’s inception he has ever done so. Tuning up with a smile, he entertained the audience with tales of his 4-track recorder, the happenstance record store encounter, and Luke Wood’s note on DGC stationary as Ian Sefchick sways, clutching his guitar by the neck and laughing as Laguana recalls the luck and circumstance which led to the eventual formation of Creeper Lagoon.
One more memory fades and Laguana soon arrives full-circle, explaining his final nod to the group, already awash in nostalgia between both band and audience. “The temptation is ‘let’s keep doing this.’ The reality is, we can’t afford it, and also we run the risk of doing a pale shadow,” he laughs, “So, I think at that point, we just said, ‘That’s it. We nailed it. That was everything we came here for.’ And that was a great note to end it on. Very positive. Very loving. Full of hope and wonder and beauty. Maybe just a couple notes of bittersweetness, but nothing overpowering.”
Laguana’s parting words end on a bittersweet note for this old fan, as well.
A fan of 15 years can only stop and recall his own Midwestern youth, his former broken hearts and high tolerances. The voices of his good friends Ian and Sharky in his ear, telling him, “Wake up, my friend/you’ve been dreaming again…” And perhaps he has been. The realization sinks in that even if he returned, he would recognize so little of it.
The memories remain present, though never stale, as the audience applauds. At some point, many will recall the first time they listened to “Wonderful Love” or “Chance of a Lifetime,” while most of a certain age have surely viewed Orange County at least once and might still recall a young Colin Hanks sprinting down the sidewalk as “Under the Tracks” plays like a revelatory teenage hymn from above. All in all, however, their entire quiet odyssey may just as well be summed up in the old lyric, written by Laguana in that small San Francisco bedroom all of those years ago—tonight was fun.