In the mid-aughts, the Clorox Girls were Portland’s great punk hope. One year after a van accident tragically snuffed the promise of the dearly missed Exploding Hearts in 2003, the band—made up of three transplants from Northern California, all decidedly male—released its self-titled full-length and instantly renewed the city’s faith in hooky, three-chord, smash-and-grab punk rock. After three albums and a tour that took the trio around the world, the group seemed poised for a breakthrough. Instead, it just faded away.
In 2010, however, things started to rumble again. Now, the original lineup is reuniting for a show in its former hometown, in celebration of Southeast punk bar East End's month-long birthday celebration. Willamette Week spoke to singer-guitarist Justin Maurer—who currently lives in Los Angeles working as a sign-language interpreter—about getting back together with bassist Colin Grigson and drummer Clay Silva, moving to Europe, and battling a Mexico City crowd for his favorite T-shirt.
Willamette Week: I guess the obvious first question is to ask what you've been doing these last three or four years.
Justin Maurer: The last time I played with Colin and Clay, the original members more or less, was on a Brazilian tour in 2004 or 2005. We had some differences, and I decided to stay down there for a little while and ended up recording some seven inches as Clorox Girls mainly on my own. Then I came back to the U.S. for a little bit and decided to reform the band with new members. We did that third album in 2006 or 2007 [J'aime Les Filles for BYO Records], then ended up touring like crazy, like 10 months out of the year for the next two years or so in support of that album, going to Europe and the U.S. and Canada. I ended up getting really badly in debt, and staying in Europe after one of those tours. I came back from Europe just a little bit ago, to California.
Going back, what originally brought you to Portland in the early 2000s?
Clay, the drummer, and I got evicted. We were living in this warehouse in North Oakland. It was a pretty gnarly neighborhood. I witnessed a drive-by shooting. It was the type of place where it's a bunch of crusties and guys with dreadlocks sleeping on the couch, and if there's food in the fridge, it'd be one bite left in your burrito—that kind of a thing. It was cheap, which is why we lived there, but we ended up getting evicted. We lived in [Clay's] van for a while and kept our jobs, then decided to move to Portland just because we liked it so much up there. There was nothing keeping us in the Bay Area.
The Clorox Girls put out its first album around the time of the Exploding Hearts' tragic van accident. Even though you didn't really sound like them, did it feel like you were filling a void in the punk scene?
When those guys came out, they were really influenced by a lot of British music, and when we came out we were just into L.A. punk. Of course we liked all those British power-pop and punk bands, but we were really trying to be a Southern California-style punk band. With the first album, we had 12 songs in 17 minutes or something. We wanted to write one minute pop-punk songs. I always loved their music, but I don't think we were trying to ape them. And the thing about Portland is, at the time we moved there, there was a lot of great bands with different styles. You had the Triggers, who were more like '77 punk, and then you had the Minds who were more new-wave punk, and you had the Observers, which were like early '80s punk, almost hardcore. We played a lot with those bands, and we had our own thing.
[The Exploding Hearts] left a void that can't be filled again. They were way ahead of their time. Adam [Cox, the Hearts' singer-guitarist] I'm sure had a lot of great songs left they could've done. It's that thing, too, where a lot of people love you a lot more once you're gone. Now, everyone's like, “That's a classic album and a work of genius,” but I don't think they were truly appreciated in their time.
What are your memories of playing in Portland at that time in the early 2000s?
At the time, it was our bands pretty much playing for each other. Portland can be pretty segregated. North Portland had the crust bands—Hellshock, Tragedy, bands like that. The people who went to see those bands wouldn't necessarily go to a show in, like, the Southeast, where all the garage rockers lived. As far as bands went, you had the Triggers, the Minds, the Observers and us, and we just played with each other all the time, at basement parties. There were a couple venues we could play in. It was never huge, but on a good night there would be 50 to 100 people, and every once and a while we'd open up for a bigger touring band at Dante's, but it'd be pretty much the same 50 people over and over again, except usually only 20 or 30 of them would come at a time.
What are your memories of touring the world? I read in an old Willamette Week article that in Mexico, guys would show up expecting you to actually be girls, then got pissed to discover you weren't.
That happened a few times, but not just out of the country. One time, in New Orleans a bunch of Navy guys showed up thinking we were girls, and we had to walk out with tire irons under our jackets because we thought these guys were going to jump us.
In Mexico, it was great. Mexico City has 50 million people, and every subculture of music is well represented there. It's an awesome city, but a really corrupt and violent city as well. When we played there, there were these guys who just kept punching me in the balls. I asked the crowd for a sip of their beer, and about 300 people threw their beer on me. I was soaking wet from head to toe, so I took my shirt off which at the time was my favorite T-shirt. It was this 1980s Marvel comics T-shirt. They tore it from me and were taunting me, like they were bullfighters going, “Toro! Toro!” I had to dive into the crowd after them to try to get my shirt, and they threw it to some girl who bit down on my hand and almost drew blood. In my best Spanish, which has gotten better since then, I had to say, “My best friend who died recently gave me that shirt, please give it back.” And finally, my filthy wet shirt showed up.
Brazil was great; Argentina was a trip. In Europe, they treat you so well. My favorite place in the world to play is probably Spain. All those countries in Europe feed you, give you drinks. When you tour the U.S., they give you, like, two warm Bud Lites and a slice of pizza. Over there, they treat you like you're actually an artist. That's one of the reasons we kept going back to Europe. People would actually buy the record, we'd get a nice place to stay and a home-cooked meal, and you could drink all night long.
Other than being in debt, is that also the reason you decided to stay there rather than come back to Portland?
I felt like, what was I going to do? Every time we left on tour from Portland, I'd have to leave my job, leave the place I was staying, breakup with my girlfriend. I was either going to come back to no job, no girlfriend, no place to live, or I could stay there. I got a job teaching English in Madrid, like, within a week. It seemed like it was all working out, so I stayed.
When you returned to the states, what made you want to start doing Clorox Girls again?
I don't know, everyone just started asking about it. I'm going to keep playing music until I'm dead, whether or not I'm making any money from it. I just seemed like the natural thing to do. Our second drummer was living in L.A., so he got his friend to play bass. It just seems like one of those things that won't die. It just keeps on going whether I want it to or not. I'm surprised people still like the music.
So is this going to just be a one-off gig with the original lineup, or will it be a full-on reunion?
I'm not sure. It just seemed appropriate. East End are doing their birthday party, and we've known all those guys in bands who work at East End for a long time. They're like a clubhouse. And it's probably cheaper to pay for one flight. [Laughs] Not to be cynical.