BY TIM BROCK
FOR BASED IN LAFAYETTE
PHOTOS VIA MASS GIORGINI,
BY NEIL HITZE
This story originally appeared in August 2022 in Based in Lafayette, an independent local reporting project published by Dave Bangert.
Before I moved to Indiana as a 22-year-old, the only things I knew about Lafayette were that it had a delicious Indian restaurant (Bombay, RIP), and some of my favorite records were created at Sonic Iguana Studios, which I envisioned as a magical and almost mythical punk rock Mecca.
Just weeks after moving into a meager apartment at Sixth and Hartford streets, imagine my elation when an old band buddy from Missouri, Matt Bug, called me to see if I wanted to meet Mass Giorgini, the producer extraordinaire behind such anthemic punk releases as Screeching Weasel’s “Wiggle” and Rise Against’s “The Unraveling.” It was an amazing early experience of being a new Hoosier as I geeked out over meeting the bassist of Squirtgun, touring the studios, and eating pizza at a long-since-closed Noble Roman’s with Giorgini, Bug and the Groovie Ghoulies, who were about to start a recording session that weekend.
Twenty-two years later, the Indiana punk rock legend and his young family — wife Leah Giorgini and young children, Giovanni and Aria — moved to Rome in July 2022, where Mass Giorgini will be close to his familial roots and relatives.
It’s bittersweet to live here without Giorgini and the bragging rights of being in a town with a recording studio — that unmistakable red concrete block building on Kossuth Street — where so many punk rock heroes created amazing sounds. Giorgini will be taking his music and studio projects with him to Italy — as well as his affinity for Lafayette.
“It is often said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Giorgini said, “and I shall forever be holding Lafayette in a beautiful spot in my heart.”
Giorgini’s mixing and mastering equipment is already overseas as Sonic Iguana’s audio legacy will continue. Giorgini revealed the existence of new Squirtgun demos, his band that played around the world since 1994.
Before appearing on MTV and the “Mallrats” soundtrack, Giorgini cut his teeth in the 1980s punk act Rattail Grenadier, which he formed with his younger brother Flav Giorgini. He then opened Spud Zero, an all-ages venue that ran from 1987 to 1988. The small club, once located at 1600 Main St. in the Five Points area, lives in the punk history books as one of only 28 venues that hosted Operation Ivy during the influential ska-punk band’s first and only national tour. In the ‘90s, Giorgini transitioned to recording and producing punk rock bands. Before the Kossuth location, Sonic Iguana had a busy stint in the 1990s near Fifth and Main streets.
No matter where in the world he resides, the Lafayette/Giorgini legacy will live on through the nearly 400 records he recorded, mixed and/or mastered, an incredible portfolio that only pales in comparison to Giorgini’s unwavering passion for his hometown of Lafayette.
Question: Why are you moving to Italy?
Mass Giorgini: My hope is that this move will give my children a similar cultural and linguistic experience to the one I had growing up between Lafayette and northern Italy. My own Italian upbringing was primarily in a smaller city — not unlike Lafayette in some ways — but I also spent a significant amount of time in Torino, which is a larger, industrial metropolitan center. Rome is not exactly the same — it’s an entirely unique place — but at least the language is the same, and we will be within driving distance of my parents’ hometowns and can visit with relatives on holidays.
Q: What is the future of Squirtgun?
Mass Giorgini: Squirtgun will pick back up soon enough. We had gotten to the point where our latest lineup was regularly doing a few shows per year in various locations, but the pandemic threw us for a loop and took the wind out of our sails. We have several demos for new songs ready, and our goal is to record some of those properly before planning more live appearances. I may get involved in some local performing among my dear musician friends in Rome, but I don’t plan for it to become a primary element of my time in Italy.
Q: Does this move make for more time to see your brother, Flav?
Mass Giorgini: This move absolutely means I’ll get to spend more time with my baby brother. As he lives in Leicester, England, we will be within a few hours of each other. Even better, flights in Europe are very affordable. It’s pretty common to get round-trip airfare from one country to the other for around a hundred bucks. That’s more like a local Greyhound bus ticket over here.
Q. Now that things have reopened during the last year, what does Lafayette-West Lafayette need to do to get its live music scene stronger?
Mass Giorgini: I truly believe it goes back to the idea that there needs to be a regularly operating all-ages venue. … All major concert venues are all-ages. You don’t hear of an over-21-only show at Wembley Stadium or Madison Square Garden. The simple reason is that the draw is not supposed to be the choice of beverages, but the performance. If a venue exists with music as it’s raison d’être, then the audience will primarily go there for the music. With that focus, people will leave the venue and talk about the bands they saw, the songs they heard, the new sounds and styles they witnessed being created in front of them.
The Lafayette area is actually quite fortunate to have fairly regular shows, often featuring some major underground forces from around the Midwest. Between The Spot (Tavern), the shows put on by Friends of Bob and Mom & Pop Productions and the various venues who less regularly put on shows, it’s been exciting to see that there is still the will to promote and attend shows — despite the pandemic. That said, there is a real need for an all-ages venue. The level of enthusiasm of under-21 audiences is unmatched by even the most diehard groups of adults. Those audiences are the ones who will determine the Nirvanas or Green Days of the future — both of those bands having been born of the scene of playing small DIY shows across the country.
It would be simple to open an all-ages venue — and it could easily be community-funded. Importantly, it would not only serve as a venue to see artists perform, but also as a means to inspire young audiences to generate their own creative output, whether musical or otherwise. From a community perspective, it would also provide a safe environment for younger audiences, rather than having them seek improvised concerts at off-campus parties, often including unsupervised distribution of alcohol.
Q: What are some tips for young musicians wanting to start a band, punk or otherwise?
Mass Giorgini: Your No. 1 motivator should always be your music. It’s easy to get carried away with things like where you are performing, your placement on the bill and who the “headliner” is, how many people attend the shows or how many records or T-shirts you sell. The truth is that ultimately none of that matters. It’s the music you share and its impact on you and your audience that is ultimately the most important part of the entire journey.
Q: What do you tell people from Europe about Lafayette-West Lafayette, music or otherwise?
Mass Giorgini: Believe it or not, Lafayette is brought up to me often by interviewers and music fans the world over. Because so much of the pop punk music scene internationally centered on albums I produced here, there is a belief that Greater Lafayette is a hotbed of pop punk bands, venues and record stores. The truth is that this area is quite varied in its musical interests, and we are no more pop-punk focused a city than most university towns. Despite that, it can’t be denied that Lafayette holds a special place in the history of the development of pop punk, and I am very proud to have been an integral part of that.
Q: If you had to just pick a few, what are your favorite Lafayette memories, musical or not?
Mass Giorgini: I still recall the Lafayette alternative music scene of the ’80s very fondly. From the birth of the Freakshow Bungalow on South Chauncey (Avenue), to the surprise appearance of the Dead Milkmen at a trailer park, to the extraordinary year of shows at Spud Zero, and the heavily attended shows put on at the old Morton School and other venues on the eve of the millennium’s final decade, it was a highly vibrant and creative period in Lafayette music. Those were the halcyon days, the golden age, and bands including the Atomic Clock, the Bored Cops and the Disease were the knights in shining armor who enriched and acculturated the music milieu of this area.
Q: What kind of impact do you think you’ve made in Lafayette since the Rattail years?
Mass Giorgini: I’d like to think that the many shows I set up in the ’80s and ’90s featuring top-quality bands, some of which ended up being influential on the world stage, enriched the local artistic environment. It certainly encouraged the involvement of a much larger youth segment in the arts.
When everything is considered, however, the studio may well be where I have left my biggest mark. A lot of the sound I tried to achieve has now become a de rigueur characteristic of melodic rock music at the level of the major labels, which I find rather ironic. The entire movement was trying to give a voice to the voiceless, a unique sound for a new generation that did not find itself represented in the mainstream. It was at least in part defined by its opposition to the status quo — and hearing it meant listening to the screams of the underground. Yet, now it is the sound of the institution, the establishment, and while the tonalities might tempt your ear, there is less and less certainty that the voice you hear is from like-minded folks of a similar ethical character.
Still, I am proud of my role in the creation of that sound as an artistic movement, and I love even more that when the name “Lafayette” is brought up in discussions of punk music around the world, the first thing mentioned is Sonic Iguana Studios.
Q: You’ve helped represent Lafayette punk rock so well since the ‘80s. What made you want to carry that mantle throughout the decades?
Mass Giorgini: When I say I love punk, I mean that for both the freedom of expression it represents and its focus on civil rights and the ending of oppression. But that’s not all — with the wave that began in the U.S. in the late-‘70s, it also began to emphasize the DIY development of an underground network independent of mainstream media and major label distribution. That meant bands started recording and releasing their own music and selling it directly to fans through mail order, and this was long before the internet. The same happened with the live music circuit — fans began renting VFW halls and community centers and putting on their own shows.
In that context, it simply always felt natural to me to promote the growth of a music scene where I live. In the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams,” the mantra “Build it and they will come” is repeated several times. I suppose one could argue that that is exactly what I did starting a few years before the film — I opened a venue, and both internationally renowned bands and local fans came to Spud Zero. Sonic Iguana Studios was simply a repetition of that on a grander scale.
★ ★ ★
While we’re here, time for one more story?
In a different timeline, Mass Giorgini moves to California to be Green Day’s recording engineer. He recalled:
Mass Giorgini: In 1995, I co-produced an album with Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day. The band was the Riverdales, who had recently formed from the ashes of the recently dissolved (for perhaps the third time) Screeching Weasel. We tracked the music and vocals in Lafayette at Sonic Iguana Studios — the second location, downtown on Fifth Street — and added overdubs and mixed in Berkeley (California) at a studio I helped Billie build. Following that partnership, Billie and Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt (who had worked with me prior when I produced him in another of his bands, and also performed guest vocals on the debut Squirtgun album) proposed that I become the head engineer and studio manager for a recording facility they planned to build. Of course, that would have required me to move to California, and I simply was not emotionally prepared to leave Lafayette and my house. My father had passed away in late ‘94 and abandoning the family home just wasn’t something I was willing to do. So, I turned them down and one of my assistant engineers, who I trained right here in Lafayette, went out and filled the position.
It was partly my deep attachment to this town that kept me from making that major career jump — but I don’t regret it. Lafayette has been very good to me in many ways, especially as far as friendships and staying close to the memories of my parents. Coincidentally, Billie Joe Armstrong has recently gotten in touch with his Italian roots and has purchased a home in Italy. Although there are no specific current plans, I can predict I’ll be meeting up with Green Day in Italy at some point in the near future. As it so happens, when I was in Rome for a few months in 2019, Mike put me in touch with his daughter Estelle, who was in the Eternal City with a student group, and we went to dinner and strolled for hours together for three evenings in a row. It was very nice getting to know her better, as the last time I had seen her she was still in diapers.
Ultimately, it seems that while Green Day were not able to lure me away from Lafayette to Berkeley, Rome has a much stronger pull. As both my parents were from Italy, my first language was Italian, and I spent many years bouncing between the old country and Lafayette, it seems that the right combination of ingredients was finally able to get me to move away. However,
I must emphasize, my intention is for this to be a three-year experience and then return to my beloved Lafayette. I guess in the long run I have been able to have my Rome and Green Day, too.” ★