Misunderstood, mistreated, underrated, and/or just plain unknown, Greg Sage should be mentioned in the first breaths about trailblazing guitarists and U.S. independent music of the '80s and '90s. Since forming his band, Wipers, in Portland, OR, in the late '70s, Sage has been put through the ringer more than enough to justify his hermetic operating methods and attitude. While most of his devout fans consider it a travesty that his name isn't as known as a contemporary like Bob Mould or even an unabashed fan-boy turned legend like Kurt Cobain, Sage would likely retort that it's not for the notoriety that he began making music. Unlike most other musicians who gain inspiration and motivation from watching their favorite stars revel in popularity and idol worship, Sage's inspiration stemmed more from the joy he got from cutting records on his own lathe. He has been more than content to remain in the underground, retaining optimum control over his own career while lending production help and support to younger bands that look to him for his guidance. Throughout his lengthy and prolific career, he has downplayed or shunned any attention or recognition given to him, preferring to let the music speak for itself.
Initialized with the intent of being a recording project and not a band in the truest sense, Sage formed Wipers in 1977 with drummer Sam Henry and bassist Doug Koupal. Sage's original goal was to release 15 records in ten years, free of traditional band aspects like touring and photo shoots. However, he found out early on that being involved with independent labels involved plenty of compromise -- and that independent labels took a great deal of independence away from him, rather than empowering him.
After a debut 7" on Sage's Trap label (an outlet that Sage also used to release a pair of Portland scene compilations), Wipers recorded Is This Real? on a four-track recorder (free of overdubs) in their rehearsal space. Park Avenue Records was willing to release it, but they insisted that Sage and company re-record everything in a professional studio. Despite the relatively polished outcome, Is This Real? remained the group's rawest and most direct outing. It was full of Sage's raging but agile guitars and what would become his trademark songwriting style, dealing with extreme isolation, confusion, and frustration with an agitated sense of melody. 14 years after its release, Sub Pop picked up the record and reissued it without any involvement from Sage.
Prior to the recording of the group's finest moment, 1981's Youth of America, Henry left to join Napalm Beach. Koupal stayed on long enough to play on a couple of the album's songs but left the band to move to Ohio; Brad Davidson moved in to play bass and Brad Naish took over on drums. Having been unimpressed by the professional studio experience, Sage took it upon himself to record and engineer everything by himself. The move paid off, resulting in a furiously spirited but brief LP full of extended passages that allowed Sage to flex his astounding skills on guitar without sounding like a showoff.
For 1982's excellent Over the Edge, the structures of the songs tightened, the pop sensibility hit full stride. As a result, "Romeo" and "Over the Edge" each sustained a fair amount of radio play in the U.S., thanks to a few stations that were developing play lists that would later be identified as alternative or modern rock. Another factor in Wipers' somewhat increased exposure had to do with the better distribution of their new label, Restless. Before Over the Edge's release, Sage fell out with Park Avenue on a number of unresolved issues.
The next studio record, Land of the Lost, didn't appear until 1986. During the lull between studio time, the band toured, Sage released his first solo album (1985's hushed Straight Ahead), and the band released a self-titled live album. Naish left the group in 1985 and was replaced by Steve Plouf. Follow Blind came out in 1987 and The Circle followed in 1988. Aside from some slight production nuances and the occasional dabbling with stylistic curveballs, the three studio albums between 1986 and 1988 more or less swam in the wake of the first three but are far from embarrassments.
A 1989 tour was accompanied with an announcement from Sage that Wipers would be ending. The end result of mounting frustrations with the independent music business and the fact that the band had lost the lease on a studio space they had devoted three years to developing, Sage packed up and headed for Phoenix to remain close to his mother. He left a town that he couldn't get arrested in, let alone reviewed. Plouf came along to Arizona (Davidson married, moved to London, and sporadically played with the Jesus & Mary Chain), and Sage built a fully operational studio in his new hideout. He recorded a second solo record, Sacrifice (For Love), and released it in 1991.
Meanwhile, several alternative rockers became vocal about their admiration for Sage. The most notable was Kurt Cobain, whose band Nirvana covered Wipers songs and asked Sage to open for them on tours. Never wanting to be opportunistic and never wanting to draw attention to himself, Sage politely turned down the offers. Sage would also reason that the timing was never right, as he and Plouf had trouble securing a bassist who would be willing to learn over 100 songs and tour unglamorously to little fanfare. Sage himself was never a fan of touring; trudging through the States to promote records had been nothing but one nightmare after another, he never got a thrill from the attention that comes with being a frontman, and only a couple towns -- specifically Boston and Chicago -- were regularly supportive. Wipers enjoyed most of their touring success in Europe, where they were treated with much more respect and filled theaters holding a couple thousand fans.
With a 1993 tribute record called Fourteen Songs for Greg Sage & the Wipers floating around, the Sup Pop reissue of the first record, and the attendant exposure gained from them, Sage effectively squashed any steam his "career" was gaining by releasing Silver Sail in 1995, a Wipers record that hardly resembled the storming fury that made his back catalog suddenly revered. And then, once the attention waned, Sage and Plouf returned to their '80s aggression with 1996's The Herd. Three years later, the duo unleashed Power in One on Sage's new Zeno label. In 2001, Sage used his own label to release a three-for-one package of Wipers' first three albums. Remastered with plenty of bonus tracks, it's probably one of the most unselfish moves committed by a musician. Electric Medicine, Sage's third solo record, came in 2002. ~ Andy Kellman