George Hurley: Minute By Minute

By Sabrina Crawford
Originally published in DRUM! Magazine’s August 2007 Issue

San Pedro. Though connected to L.A. via the Harbor Gateway, the little seaside town is distinctly insular. With its crashing surf, blue-collar roots, and family friendly vibe, it’s a seemingly unlikely place for a musical uprising. And yet in the ’80s, San Pedro became the cradle of the Southern California punk rock revolution. Likewise, George Hurley, a local contractor with a single-family home and mortgage, is an unlikely punk hero. With a warm, folksy manner and a back sore from pouring concrete earlier, Hurley is a lot like his hometown: an anomaly that somehow makes perfect sense.

If you ask any musician to name the best punk bands of all time, over and over, The Minutemen make the A-list. And if you ask any drummer (or any musician for that matter), the raw, explosive, experimental intensity of Hurley and bassist Mike Watt is legendary. In fact, the famed rhythm section set the bar so high that bands (punk and otherwise) are still struggling to reach it. While that makes Hurley proud, it’s a status he never expected to achieve. “I never really thought punk rock would get that popular, and I’m surprised it’s still really popular today,” he says. “I kind of thought punk rock was going to come and go.”

Maybe that’s because back when this all began, he was just a kid – albeit one who traded his mini bike for a drum set, sold his surfboard to buy cymbals, and threw himself into playing head-on at age 19. “I was so obsessed with the drums. I used to have a little back shed behind my house and I’d be out there for ten hours a day playing to records, playing to the radio. I wouldn’t even get up to turn the lights on when it got dark; I was so obsessed with them. After I was done I’d take my drums and break them down and put them in these big shipping trunks I had, and I’d double lock them down. I was so scared someone was going to steal them!”

And who can blame him. After all, this is a guy who spent his youth making his own sticks out of Plexiglas and wood at the Boys Club, and clanging out beats on old ice cream tubs; a guy whose first drum hero was a chimp named Bananas Marmoset on the TV show Lancelot Link. To him, those drums were gold.

“As far back as I can remember, even when I was a little kid, I always wanted to play drums. I didn’t care about guitar or anything like that. I don’t know why; there’s no one in my family that plays a musical instrument. It’s just something I wanted to do.”

It’s also something he was born to do. Anyone who’s seen We Jam Econo, the documentary on The Minutemen, or was lucky enough to catch the band live back in the day, knows why drum heroes like Jose Pasillas cite Hurley as a huge influence. His sheer force, impossible speed, uniquely tweaked rig – with roto toms and his prized Ufips (thick 6", 8", and 10" bells he loves for the way they radiate), and his self-taught style set the gold standard for flying fast, furious, and off the radar.

“One of the most amazing things when I listen back to those old records I made is that I haven’t gotten any better,” Hurley laughs. “What I mean is, I came up with some pretty inventive parts just struggling to try to make things work. I listen now and go ‘wow’; some if the ideas I had are just kind of crazy!”

Hurley’s distinct, organic style, forged in a fire of youthful exuberance, the punk explosion, and seeing jazz greats play at local clubs, is a hyper mix that goes well beyond the straight, racing pulse of classic punk. It’s a style he owes largely to developing side by side, musically, with Mike Watt.

“Mike’s got very good ideas. We can just make parts in a strange way that’s unexplainable. It’s conscious and unconscious – it’s like mixing two colors. Mike’s style is like a hundred snakes tied in a massive ball and they’re all trying to get untied, and mine is like water that flows and all of a sudden a typewriter, then a little bit of water, then a typewriter,” Hurley explains. “I like R&B music. I like the space and the relaxation of it. At the same time, I like things jerky and piecey too, so I try to put the two together. I guess it’s kind of like corn nut soup!”

Knowing that crunch, that groove, that musical mixing of colors that is the essence of the magical chemistry between Hurley and Watt, it’s hard to believe that, at first, Hurley wasn’t sure he wanted to play with the famed bassist. “He asked me to play drums with him for at least a year,” Hurley recalls. “But I thought, ‘This guy’s kind of a geek. I don’t want to hang out with him – because he wasn’t cool. My friends were stoners, and we’d get keggers going in the shed on the weekend. They’d bring guitars over, and we’d just party and drink until we threw up. And I thought, ‘I can’t bring this guy over there. He ain’t cool. Finally I must have sobered up one weekend and said what the hell.”

Watt came over with guitarist D. Boon and overnight the shed morphed into a rehearsal space/stage. Watt was immersed in the emerging punk scene, where STS records and bands like Black Flag and Hüsker Dü were percolating. And he pulled Hurley smack into the center of it all. “More and more clubs were playing punk rock music, and there were more and more punk rockers. And the next thing you know, it was just exploding into zillions of punk rockers!” Hurley recalls. “Within a year and a half of starting to play drums I was already on the road touring and making records. It was a crash course in music; I tell you. It really was.”

And it was a hell of a course. Watching those old clips, you see Hurley tear through 60-second song after song at breakneck speeds, surfer mop flying. “It was physical music. I remember playing in the early days and getting so excited and playing so goddamn hard. I knew two drummers that got hernias playing and I’m sure I came close, song after song with no breaks. It was like running a mile, two miles.”

The story of The Minutemen’s demise – of D. Boon’s tragic untimely death at the trio’s peak – is legendary. So is the story of Firehose – the reuniting of Hurley and Watt at the urging of super-fan Ed Crawford, who famously wrote letter after letter to Watt begging him to be in a band. “It was really hard. You pretty much don’t know what to do with yourself,” Hurley says of Boon’s death. “But playing music is what I love to do and it’s what Mike loves to do.”

It’s the reason why, two decades later, they still find ways to play together. Though Watt did his own projects and Hurley went on to other things, most notably playing with The Red Crayola, there seems to be a permanent rhythmic tie that keeps them coming back together. These days it’s in the form of Unknown Instructors, an improv jazz-meets-punk-meets-art-rock project with members of Pere Ubu and Saccharine Trust that’s got more in common with Sun Ra and John Zorn than the Dead Kennedys. But for Hurley, that’s just fine.

“I’d never pass up the opportunity to play with Mike,” Hurley says. “[With Unknown Instructors] you never know how it’s going to come out. You just try to be open and play as freely as you can.” Like a ’50s beat poet jam in a smoky, underground Manhattan jazz club, the group’s second disc, The Master’s Voice, is all about capturing the moment. It is what it is, warts and all, laid down live, together, and except for a basic outline, almost entirely improvised.

“Nothing’s rehearsed, nothing’s practiced,” he says. “They don’t even know what’s going to happen next or what chord they’ll be playing next or who’s going to shift and start playing some other rhythm or chord in the middle. And when you hear that you decide if you want to ride with that or just stay on your individual thing.”

Playing jazzy, laid-back grooves rather than rip-roaring rock: is this just the inevitable future of all aging punks? Hardly. For Hurley, who considers Max Roach as radical as Johnny Rotten, it’s just another brand of punk. “To me jazz was really punk rock,” he says. “There was all this wild, crazy, off-the-hook stuff – guys going nuts, playing real hard, and going off free-form. It’s so raw and it’s so real, that was like punk for me.”

In a way it’s a natural progression for a guy who was never a garden-variety punk. “It seems so out of time in a way,” Hurley says of The Minutemen’s sound. “It’s even different from punk rock. It’s music we made. It was punk, like a lot of the ideas are punk and the words are punk, but it has a lot of tension. Being a kid and coming up with that stuff, it inspires me still. It really does.”

Jazz that’s not exactly jazz. Punk that’s not exactly punk. Now, really, what could be more punk rock?