Every town has its share of tenacious musicians who play and play and play some more, only reaping an occasional drunken "Awesome set!" as reward. Ask any diehard veteran of the local scene (and there are plenty of those) whether the Protestant work ethic works in the music biz and you'll get a resounding no. There are validations. But if you're expecting fame or tangible rewards, well, forget about it. The combination of dogged persistence and talent rarely yields much.
Percussionist Larry Mullins, however, has beaten the odds. A mainstay of Knoxville's 1980s scene who served in Wh-Wh (with Terry Hill and Brian Waldschlager) and the Wedge, among others, Mullins is the rare example where perseverance, artistry, and timing produced amazing results—a viable career, even. Mullins' last appearance in Knoxville was in August of 1987, a collaboration with R.B. Morris.
"That was a real honor," Mullins says. "We played ‘Local Man,' and then I immediately became ‘Not Local Man.'"
After a bold move from Knoxville to Los Angeles at the behest of Black Flag's Greg Ginn, Mullins joined Iggy Pop's band for nine years, appearing on the albums American Caesar, Naughty Little Doggie, and Avenue B. Then Mullins collaborated with the famously difficult Michael Gira in the Swans and, later, Angels of Light. Mullins later teamed up with San Francisco weirdos the Residents. In 2004 he moved to Berlin, where he has since worked with chanteuse Keren Ann, Afrobeat/electronic artist Jessie Evans, Lydia Lunch, and Kid Congo Powers; as producer for several noted European artists; and on his solo all-percussion project, Toby Dammit.
Now Mullins is touring with one of the most influential bands of all time, Iggy and the Stooges. With original drummer Scott Asheton sidelined with stomach problems, the Stooges needed a replacement fast to meet several high-profile festival commitments. So Mullins, who had already performed the Stooges repertoire hundreds of times with Iggy Pop, was the ideal candidate. The call came from none other than Iggy himself.
"It was just as surprising as the first time he called in 1990," Mullins says. "It was his first call in 12 years, so I knew it was serious. Scotty had gone into the hospital the day before, and they had no time to think twice."
Mullins had only two days to rehearse with the band before a humongous show in Kent, England, appearing between Lou Reed and Morrissey in front of 50,000 fans. Mullins, however, is longtime friends with the band, including former Minuteman bassist and recent Stooges addition Mike Watt, so the collaboration was a surefire hit.
"This is kind of a family thing," he says. "I had known the Stooges for years and opened for them several times in Jessie Evans' band. And knowing Watt goes waaay back to when the Minutemen played at Vic & Bill's."
The present incarnation of the Stooges includes Raw Power-era guitarist James Williamson, who rejoined the band after the death of guitarist Ron Asheton.
"James is working very closely with me now since these are his songs," Mullins says. "And he knows I'm giving it everything for Scotty.
"Being on stage with Iggy is always a war zone, and that will never change," Mullins continues. "The main difference now is the family thing. It's more like a tribe than just a band. I cannot describe the feeling of finally playing these songs with James after I played them over 1,000 times each already. James says it shows. It's in my blood and brain forever, I suppose. This was not a casual get-together; it was an emergency. We had to put our guts and souls into this from note one to make it work.
"As far as I can tell there are a lot of kids that have never seen Iggy or possibly anything like the Stooges. These shows are mostly in Europe"—excepting four American shows in California and Nevada—"but this band is American and raw, no trickery or gadgets, just bloodthirsty, sweaty, high-volume shock treatment. People seem stunned at how well it works."
So Mullins is the ultra-rare exception where work, guts, and talent have paid off perceptibly. He has skillfully straddled the line between hard rock and more nuanced musical styles to build a high-profile life as a professional, international musician. Asked if he is more of a rocker or an artiste, Mullins claims allegiance to both sides.
"I've listened to all kinds of music all of my life, and fortunately have been able to apply that knowledge with artists all over the world for a career," he says. "Working with Iggy is a 100 percent brutal rock 'n' roll show, and I know how to do that. But I've also worked with many singer/songwriters in different languages making quiet, introspective, and sometimes strange music. I've worked on several film scores, using my classical abilities scoring for orchestra. I also made seven records with Michael Gira that required something from all these genres. Jessie Evans's music is more an Afrobeat/Latin-jazz direction, and that's been a huge and technically demanding rhythmic turn for me. I think my job is to take what I've learned and apply it to every task I accept, no matter the style. Usually the outcome is good."
For a complete list of Larry Mullins' various musical projects, visit tobydammit.com. Mullins also appears on a colossal three-hour episode of the "Mike Watt From Pedro" podcast, in which he details his long career and discusses Knoxville, the Vic & Bill's scene, and the late Todd "Bonehead" Townsend at length.