Album cover

Codeine: Frigid Stars LP

Ohio’s Oberlin College has been a breeding ground for the struggling artist set since its 1833 founding. Poets, playwrights, authors, screenwriters, and musicians have tossed Oberlin mortarboards in untold numbers before moving onto distinguished, and mostly unrecognized, careers in the arts. In the late 1980s, Oberlin trained several future staples in the next decade’s indie rock boom—Liz Phair, Tortoise’s John McEntire, and Seam founder Sooyoung Park among them. Minor players emerged as well, two of whom coalesced into a band named for an opiate, that would make its name on carefully measured paces, lyric and tonal weariness, and a wholly original mastery of epic understatement. 

Son of a bebop drummer and a 1986 graduate, Chris Brokaw was something of an elder statesman on the Oberlin scene. Pay The Man, Brokaw’s college hardcore outfit, had been Oberlin’s match, striking in 1984 and igniting dozens of bands before its Boston relocation. Brokaw and Stephen Immerwahr, Codeine’s eventual founder, were only somewhat acquainted during their Oberlin years, prior to Brokaw’s brief stint with G. G. Allin’s AIDS Brigade; Chris played one show and appeared on a Homestead label 7” before Allin’s inevitable incarceration. Orestes Delatorre, Pay The Man’s second drummer, would return to Oberlin from Boston and form Bitch Magnet with Sooyoung Park shortly thereafter, while original Pay The Man drummer Peter Pollack connected with Immerwahr and John Engle to form Squid, the earliest incarnation of Codeine.

Raised in the Seattle exurb of Granite Falls, Stephen Immerwahr arrived at Oberlin in the fall of 1982 with a $98 Vox Beatle bass. The shy, somewhat awkward freshman had previously performed only with the Accidents. During the tail end of his senior year, he co-founded the Lilies—a Jesus and Mary Chain-influenced four-piece—with Lexi Mitchell, later a founding member of Sooyoung Park’s Seam. The Lilies enlisted the services of Mike McMackin, Oberlin’s resident engineer, to track a handful of originals, before promptly disbanding. Post-Oberlin, and while couch-surfing New York City in January 1987, Immerwahr found himself riding the cushions of fellow Oberlin alum Jeremy Engle, whose brother John, a not-so-recent SUNY New Paltz dropout, spent his days sweating through part-time construction work. Immerwahr and Engle struck an immediate rapport through mutual disaffection and boredom. “I knew as soon as I met him that I wanted to be in a band with him,” said Immerwahr. “He just didn’t know it yet.” 

“My parents were out of the country and Steve stayed in their room,” Engle remembered. “He would sit in there and emerge from time to time with a new song on my four-track. He recorded ‘Old Things’ with a lot of alcohol in his system. I thought it was a remarkable statement of resignation.” Stephen’s job as assistant engineer at McMackin’s new studio, West 45th Street’s Sound On Sound, left him un-booked board hours for tinkering with his home-recorded ideas. Four of those flashes ended up as Side A of the Bigheads Burst compilation cassette, with Engle and Peter Pollack backing Stephen under the working title Squid. For Engle, who had been working with Immerwahr on several songs, the addition of Pollack was “a step closer to being a band.” The home-dubbed tape’s B-side ran 10 other Immerwahr sketches, under various banners including K4ss, One-Eyed Cat, and Kronic Fatigue Syndrome; the Smooshies, credited with “Corner Store,” were Immerwahr on bass and—less proficiently—drums, with Engle picking out a passable guitar solo.


J-Card for the Bigheads Burst compilation

“Sooyoung Park, who I knew fairly well at the time, introduced me to Steve’s music by sending me the Bigheads Burst compilation tape in 1988,” Brokaw recalled. “I had heard a little through the grapevine about his Oberlin band, the Lilies, who were said to be really good and insanely loud, but I didn’t hear their music until much later. I think Sooyoung really wanted to match-make Steve and me. He led me specifically to the song ‘3 Angels,’ which I really loved.” Sooyoung put Squid’s “3 Angels”—alongside tracks by Suckwagon, bitchmagnetyouth, the Lilies, and a clutch of John McEntire projects—on his Roman Candle label’s cassette-only Glenn Kindlmann compilation and let 80 copies out into the world.

CHRIS BROKAW: “I told Sooyoung that I really liked the tape; he told Steve, and then Steve and I got together in a bar on the lower east side sometime in 1988 or 1989. I was living in Boston but...I was willing to travel to make something happen. Initially we weren’t sure what my role would be. There was a period where we discussed me being the second guitarist, and having our producer Mike McMackin play drums.” 

“I hadn’t played with anyone before who could discuss parts of a song with such a total lack of ego. Nearly every band I’d been in up to that point had players who were extremely protective of the parts they played: that was their expression, and criticizing it or dismantling it was a very sensitive issue. John and Steve kind of did away with all that; it was bracing and refreshing, really new to me.They were not big rock and rollers, they didn’t think of themselves as virtuosos at any level. Rest assured, there wasn’t a single note or drum hit that was not discussed and considered. It was extremely codified and, in a way, very experimental—almost like a science project. We spent a lot of time discussing the purpose of a single bass note; the various effects of 8th notes on the ride cymbal versus 16th notes; the placement and use of feedback....We were really dissecting the whole thing and trying to determine what role each instrument took in a particular song.”

JOHN ENGLE: “I got a call from Steve out of the blue in the summer of 1989. Sooyoung had offered him a slot in an upcoming Bitch Magnet show. He went on to tell me he had written a couple new songs and that he had an idea for a band in which the music just moved by, very slowly. I asked him who he thought would possibly want to play in a band like that. When he suggested I play guitar, I said I really wasn’t sure, but he told me he was. He wanted it to be called Codeine.”

STEPHEN IMMERWAHR: “I’d been fascinated with tempos right after college. I was living outside of Philadelphia and listening to a lot of speed metal on WSOU. I’d been thinking...‘That sounds really hard to play. No human could be involved with it.’ I was interested in the slowness of emotional depressive states. The slowness of opiate drug states. There’s a certain intensity that comes from playing intentionally slow, a visceral intensity. We wanted it to be part of the way we were playing. Tempo was going to be an important part of what we were going to be. It took us a while to get good at playing Codeine slow… the feeling of Codeine slow.” 

Booked for August 1989 at the Middle East in Boston, Codeine was slotted first on an attractive three-band bill that included Bitch Magnet and Green Magnet School. On the set list were “Old Things,” “Skeletons,” “3 Angels,” “Castle,” the Neil Young homage/parody “Corner Store,” the newly written “D” and “Gravel Bed,” and a cover of the Lilies’ “Curtain Of Surprise.” “I didn’t think the show was too bad,” Immerwahr recalled, “but I didn’t think we’d do it again.” 

They wouldn’t, for at least six more weeks, with Immerwahr whisked off to Europe to man soundboard knobs for Bitch Magnet’s first tour of the continent. “Steve had made a short demo that he brought along on the Bitch Magnet tour, and we listened to it over and over again,” said Bitch Magnet guitarist David Grubbs. “ ‘Pea’ was the standout song, and almost immediately Bitch Magnet worked up a version as an encore, with Steve singing. I was struck by the song’s—and Steve’s—seriousness and self-criticism. I always thought that the various approaches to representing abjection made for Codeine’s most moving music.” Coming out of a cover of the Misfits’ “Where Eagles Dare,” “Pea” also struck a jarring pace reversal. In lieu of paying Immerwahr for his live sound work, Bitch Magnet agreed to namedrop Codeine in any interviews they did along the way. It would prove more valuable than anyone could’ve expected. 

After Europe, Bitch Magnet invited Immerwahr and Engle to Kentucky to record “Pea” as the B-side for their “Valmead” 7” and “Thou Needs” 12”. Howie Gano recorded the song at his Sound On Sound studio (no relation to McMackin’s same-named facility) in Crestwood, Kentucky, a Louisville suburb. “I have an image of Orestes Delatorre taking two swings at his ride cymbal for every hit,” Grubbs recalled, “in order to slow himself down—like Muhammad Ali shadowboxing in slow motion.” The first appearance of the Codeine name, other than on home-taped cassettes, came in early 1990, thanks to Gary Held’s Communion label out of Atlanta. Pea-soup-hued 12-point pic sleeve notes for “Valmead” b/w “Pea” reported that “Bitch Magnet backed Codeine” on the B-side track. 


Communion leased “Pea” to Germany’s Glitterhouse label for European buyers. Founded by Reinhard Holsteinin 1985, Glitterhouse had, by 1990, expanded into the development of Stateside talent. Through a marketing and distribution deal with Olympia, Washington’s Sub Pop label, Glitterhouse had brought Fluid, Mudhoney, Green River, Tad, and the Screaming Trees to Europe’s attention; the label was looking to handle its own stable of U.S. acts. Howl, a Glitterhouse-published fanzine, had interviewed Bitch Magnet on their recent swing through Germany; true to their promise, the band planted seeds of Codeine as the next big American thing. Holstein inquired with Bitch Magnet’s Jon Fine via fax as to Codeine’s status. “At this point, it had been seven or eight months since our one and only show opening for Bitch Magnet,” Immerwahr said. “We told them we weren’t signed, and they asked if we had any material we would like to contribute to a box set they were putting together.” Immerwahr offered up the Squid version of “Castle,” good enough for a $500 advance. An early photo of the band’s classic line-up made the eventual pic sleeve, though Peter Pollack (listed in error as Chris Pollack) got a drumming nod in the credits. With Bitch Magnet, Cows, Bullet LaVolta, Halo Of Flies, Surgery, Helios Creed, Green River, and Unsane sharing wax with Codeine inside the 6x7” Endangered Species box, Immerwahr felt it wise to open a P.O. Box in anticipation of fan mail. More than 20 years later, Box 2027, Peter Stuyvesant Station, New York, NY, 10009 remains open. 

In 1990, $500 represented significant scratch for a band with one gig under its belt. Codeine doubled down in June and headed for Mike McMackin’s basement, where they began work on “D,” “Gravel Bed,” “Pickup Song,” and a cover of Lexi Mitchell and Sooyoung Park’s “New Years,” each of them planned for further consideration by Glitterhouse. McMackin’s basement eight-track machine was a better fit for Codeine than the 24 tracks and multi-layering of Sound on Sound. “We needed a spacious sound, so four tracks went to the drums.” Immerwahr remembered. “That left one track each for bass, John’s guitar—and later, Chris’s guitar, and my singing. No room for handclaps or shakers. John and I were still just getting to know Chris and working out the songs while making those recordings with Mike. We figured out what Codeine was actually going to be like as music, as a band, and not just my songs on John’s cassette 4-track. And Mike really had a gift for making us sound good.”


MIKE McMACKIN: “Those sessions were a blast. We had no budget to speak of, so we cobbled together a 1/2” eight-track machine and an old Tangent console I had picked up for dirt-cheap. We rented a pair of good mic preamps and a handful of microphones. But, as I recall, those tracks were basically recorded almost entirely with Shure SM57s. We set the band up in the basement of my apartment building, which had a dirt floor and very dark, cramped, dungeon-ous atmosphere. I think it even flooded at one point. We ran cables out through the window to my living room on the first floor, and the floor would shake during the takes. The neighbors were very cool. They just left when it got too loud.” 

Glitterhouse responded to the resulting four-song cassette with options: they’d issue two singles, or Codeine could record four more songs and release an album. Choosing the latter, Codeine returned to McMackin’s subterranean studio in August to track “Cave-In,” “Old Things,” a new version of “3 Angels,” “Second Chance,” and “Cigarette Machine.” Overdubbing was handled in the boiler room, with a dehumidifier cranked between takes in a vain attempt to deal with basement damp. Brokaw stepped out from behind the kit to add a fuzzy second guitar to the whole affair. “On ‘Cave-In,’ there are several abrupt pauses in the song,” noted Brokaw. “On the first pause in the second chorus, there’s a quick burst of guitar feedback. That was me. I knew very deliberately that it had to be in that pause, and not any of the others.” As a final thought, an acoustic version of “Pea” was cut as a CD-only bonus track. Immerwahr’s weight-of-the-world delivery adds dark tonality to the opening line, “When I see the sun...” Any lingering doubts about the self-critical seriousness of Codeine were crushed by “Pea” entirely. 

With their debut album in the can, the band conceptualized sleeve art based on a lyric by the Fall’s Mark E. Smith: “We are frigid stars, you cannot fuck us.” Immerwahr spent a day at the New York Public Library poring over astral imagery, found a fitting starfield, and had a local graphic slab reverse its blacks and whites and blow it up. For the back cover, the group chose a photo Engle had taken of a friend passed out on a mattress on the floor of Engle’s Avenue A apartment. Immerwahr put a tape of the LP into the hands of Homestead’s Ken Katkin, telling him that “every track on Frigid Stars represented a different perspective on ‘Cortez the Killer’ by Neil Young.” Katkin, finding the record a bit less derivative than that, offered to issue the album on first listen. He also connected Codeine with Parsons graduate Tammi Colichio, who’d bring the band’s stark album cover vision to reality. McMackin, meanwhile, sent demos to a handful of major labels and fielded polite form rejection letters in response. 

Codeine had spent the summer of 1990 honing their live act. On June 19th, the band snagged an opening slot at the Middle East with Chicago’s Urge Overkill; somehow, promotional materials listed Immerwahr and company as hailing from New Jersey. “We had a few decidedly non-Codeine songs in our first show,” said Engle. “We thought we’d have them in to break the monotony, but came to the conclusion that we shouldn’t provide a respite from ourselves.” In September, the group played its third and fourth shows, opening for the Laughing Hyenas at Boston’s Bunratty’s and at CBGB’s.“We just came off as tepid and halting,” Engle said of the Boston date. “Afterward, we were pretty bummed, but Steve was despondent. It just wasn’t translating.” And yet, by year’s end, Codeine would have its own booking agent in Boston-based Tom Johnston. “Obviously, Chris being in Boston was difficult,” Engle continued. “But even so, we didn’t practice often and simply didn’t play a lot of shows early on.” 

More than a year after Bitch Magnet had sung the praises of a barely existent Codeine, “Pickup Song” b/w “3 Angels” was issued as a 7” in November of 1990 on Glitterhouse. Three months later, Frigid Stars LP made good on Bitch Magnet’s promises. Melody Maker toasted the album as a “rare and astonishing achievement and a profoundly moving one at that,” and the UK’s ever persnickety NME said “a scrawny sounding vocalist oozes murmured poetry while minimal electric backing uncoils erratically behind him, all of which sounds very promising and, surprisingly, exciting.” The album’s successes led to some confusion about the band’s origins. “It was a totally ludicrous situation,” Engle said in a 1993 interview. “In America, they thought Codeine was a new German band. People I knew well told me there was supposed to be this cool new band from Europe that had exactly the same name as we did.” Available at first only as a pricey import, Frigid Stars LP desperately needed a U.S. label to back it.

With the band signed, in essence, to Sub Pop Europe, Codeine sent an unmarked tape to Sub Pop founders Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt. Immerwahr remembers some initial friction: “Sub Pop heard it and said ‘Well it sounds really good, how would you feel about coming out to do more guitars with Jack Endino?’ And John was like, ‘Screw those guys Jack and Dino. We’re not working with those two doofuses.’” Brokaw recalls a similar sentiment: “Poneman asked if we would add some more ‘grungy’ guitars, kind of grunge it out, which we politely refused.” Eventually, Poneman and Pavitt made the trek east to Boston to see the band perform at TT The Bear’s Place, and inked the band shortly after their fifth performance. Rein Sanction, Green Magnet School, and Eric’s Trip would follow in short order with the opening of Sub Pop’s Boston office. “Codeine and Beat Happening were the first non-grunge bands signed to the label, and we sort of ruined the grunge party,” Brokaw quipped.


At TT’s

In the run-up to May 1991’s domestic release of Frigid Stars LP, Glitterhouse issued “D” as the album’s second single, with Sub Pop’s logo stamped in the upper left-hand corner. Hoping to stem the import tide, Sub Pop beefed up their Frigid Stars CD: “3 Angels” was added as Track #9; and, though he says Poneman’s advice didn’t convince him to, Brokaw went back and grunged up a new version of “Pea” with distorted guitar, bringing the CD’s track count to an even ten.

Buried in the Frigid Stars LP press kit was a key line forecasting Codeine’s future: “Chris Brokaw (drums and guitar) - sometimes plays guitar for Thalia Zedek’s new band Come, lives in Boston.” In August, Come would issue their first single, “Car” b/w “Last Mistake” + “Submerge,” on Sub Pop. “From the start, we considered that he would probably have to choose between the two bands at some point,” said Engle. “Chris came to a Codeine practice with a cassette of Come demos—probably before they’d played any shows or had a name. So he plays us ‘Submerge’ and when the guitar solo starts we think, ‘OK, that’s great. It’s great to hear Chris’s playing and it’s very good.’ About a minute and a half later, a second guitar solo starts, and I think, ‘Chris is not staying in Codeine over this band. Not a chance.’”

Four months prior to Sub Pop’s historic Nevermind windfall, the spate of glowing reviews for Frigid Stars LP made Poneman and Pavitt feel they had found their next meal ticket. Interview’s rave write-up was the first to use the dreaded “G” word: “In the mid-‘80s, 50 or so bands effloresced like lichens, attempting to parlay studied whimsy into Velvet Undergroundish grunge. One of these bands actually got it right.” Now opening for the Smashing Pumpkins, Unrest, and other heavies among the major-indie elite, and booked for a Euro swing in support of Grubbs and McEntire’s Bastro that fall, Codeine seemed poised to break well beyond Sub Pop’s devoted singles club subscribers. But at the time, glacial tempos performed by men with guitars amounted to a punk provocation. “People could sometimes be really taken aback by our music,” said Brokaw. “Some of the people at the shows were very dismayed to discover that we did not sound like Mudhoney or Soundgarden. It said on all the flyers ‘Codeine—from Sub Pop!,’ as if Sub Pop were some sort of Island Of Grunge.”

In truth, grunge was about to become one very crowded island. And Codeine’s frigid corner of Sub Pop’s indie cocoon gained heat, as the nation’s music-buying ears were bent irrevocably toward something volcanic awakening in Seattle.