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The Sunflower

Forty years later, documentary tells the story of Wichita band, The Embarrassment

The Embarassment, Wichita band, experienced the height of their popularity in the 1980s after meeting as students at Wichita State University. Photo courtesy of Bill Goffrier.

“We Were Famous, You Don’t Remember: The Embarrassment” tells the story of a band, which, in its heyday of the late 1970s to early 1980s, was one of the most significant things in music to come out of Kansas. The band was composed of four young men brought together by childhood friendships and a chance encounter in a ceramics class at Wichita State University. 

Guitarist Bill Goffrier, drummer Brent Giessmann and lead vocalist John Nichols have known each other since elementary school. When Nichols moved into their neighborhood, Giessmann and Goffrier laughed at him for learning to play the trumpet, but by the time they entered high school, the three had become friends. 

Goffrier, who lives in Wichita and devotes his time to painting instead of guitar these days, developed an interest in music early on. His father had past experience as a singer in the 1940s, but he didn’t continue this pursuit or pass it on to his son. 

His father’s old guitar helped spark the beginnings of Goffrier’s interest in music.

“I just wanted to learn guitar, so I had a little bit of lessons, but that didn’t really seem to go well,” he said. 

By the mid-1970s, the punk rock genre was reaching the height of its popularity. The intense, unpolished sound and a do-it-yourself attitude of bands like the Ramones appealed to the future members of The Embarrassment.

“Later on, when the band decided to start, I was learning rudimentary things as we went. But that was okay because I had the Ramones’ model to follow,” Goffrier said. “So I knew then that if I could master some bar chords for electric guitar, I would be able to struggle through some really basic rock songs.”

 Later, Goffrier said they would find precursors to the punk genre in earlier influential rock bands like the Velvet Underground and The Stooges. By combining influences from different decades of rock music, the group began to play together in an early imagining of The Embarrassment.

Goffrier, Giessmann and Nichols entered the College of Fine Arts at Wichita State. They kept  playing together on and off with several different fourth members under an assortment of names. That was when they met Ron Klaus. 

“Brent, our drummer, was taking a ceramics class,” Goffrier said. “He must have been talking about the band with somebody in there, and Ron Klaus overheard him in the same class and spoke right up and said, ‘Hey, I play bass guitar.’ And that was all it took.”

Complete with four members but still without a name, they used their connections within the fine arts school to play at parties and exhibit openings. Before playing on KMUW, the university-owned public radio station, the group realized they needed to finalize the band’s name. 

During a rehearsal in early 1979, they jotted down lists of potential names until someone suggested The Embarrassment.

“The more we thought about it, I guess it kind of suited all of our sense of humor because we wanted to sort of make people question, ‘What is this? Are these guys serious or not?’ We just wanted to be a bit challenging,” Goffrier said. 

After getting their footing in Wichita, The Embarrassment focused their attention on Lawrence, Kansas, where a thriving music scene greeted them. By 1980, they were touring farther from home, and the pressure of maintaining the band alongside other jobs to financially support themselves began to weigh on the members. 

“We were pretty desperate to maybe get back to a little bit more of a normal life,” Goffrier said. “We had put a lot of things aside and sacrificed a lot of things, jobs and relationships. At that point, it seemed like it wasn’t really worth it anymore, it just wasn’t enough fun anymore. And it was always meant to be fun.”

In 1983, it became clear that they had taken The Embarrassment as far as it could go, and the four parted ways, although they would hold several reunion concerts throughout the years. 

Goffrier and Giessmann both moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where Goffrier attended school and Giessmann played for the Del Fuegos. Goffrier formed another band, Big Dipper, before moving back to Wichita in 2013. 

While living in Boston, Goffrier and Giessmann were contacted by Dan Fetherston, a film director from New York. Fetherston had learned about The Embarrassment while studying film at New York University and was fascinated by the band from Kansas.

“I had at that time never been to the Great Plains, so it certainly held this mystique and this aura,” he said.

Fetherston contacted Giessmann and Goffrier about his idea to make a documentary on The Embarrassment.  

“We felt honored and impressed that some guy from Brooklyn, this young guy, how would he even come up with this? It seems so bizarre. But he showed how serious he was,” Goffrier said.

They agreed to the project, and Fetherston drove to Boston and Florida to film interviews with Giessmann, Goffrier and Nichols. In 2006, the four members of The Embarrassment would reunite to play in Wichita and Lawrence. Fetherston used the reunion to collect the rest of his interviews. 

In the next few years, the former band members would hear less and less about the documentary. Fetherston, intimidated by the production and legal issues of putting together a feature-length film and busy with his own band, Oxford Collapse, had lost momentum with the project. 

“I was a little ashamed and embarrassed, no pun intended, that I had not continued work on the documentary,” Fetherston said. 

The documentary was set aside until 2016, when another director offered to take the project from Fetherston but ultimately gave it up too. Soon after, Danny Szlauderbach entered the scene. 

Szlauderbach had listened to The Embarrassment as a teenager and was intrigued by their unique twist on genres and midwestern origins. 

“They sounded like this garage band that nobody had ever heard of, but the songs sounded like they could have been hits, so it’s always been this big mystery,” Szlauderbach said.

Like Fetherston, Szlauderbach had his own idea for a documentary about The Embarrassment. He filmed his own interviews in 2016 and hesitated about contacting Fetherston, but in 2019, he reached out about collaborating. 

“You would think that if you had this big thing you wanted to do your whole life and you find out on the first call that somebody already started, it might seem like a disappointment, but for me it was like it confirmed that it was worth doing, ” Szlauderbach said. 

Working together remotely, the two put their footage together and first completed a 10-minute video for the band’s induction to the Kansas Music Hall of Fame in 2020. Within the next two years, they completed their feature film, which premiered at the 2022 Tallgrass Film Festival. They titled it after lyrics from one of the band’s songs, “Lewis and Clark.” Before the premier, Fetherston and Szlauderbach met in person for the first time. 

“It was surreal,” Szlauderbach said. “For the first time, we were seeing people laugh at parts that we didn’t expect them to laugh at, cheering at parts that we didn’t know they would cheer at. It feels like a huge accomplishment.”

Goffrier and Giessmann played a performance together with fill-in members following the screening on September 20, 2022. 

After its premier, “We Were Famous” ran in several theaters over the summer, and according to Szlauderbach, the movie will be available for rent on streaming services this fall.

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About the Contributor
Ainsley Smyth
Ainsley Smyth, Reporter
Ainsley Smyth is a second-year reporter for The Sunflower. Smyth is a sophomore communications major with an emphasis in journalism and media productions. Her dream job is to travel back in time 30 years and then be a reporter for Rolling Stone. Smyth uses she/her pronouns.

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    Bill GoffrierSep 21, 2023 at 1:07 pm

    Thank you Ainsley. The best reward a songwriter can receive is someone listening to your creation so many years later, so my friends and I are thrilled that people can still hear us

  • AnonymousSep 21, 2023 at 1:07 pm

    Thank you Ainsley. The best reward a songwriter can receive is someone listening to your creation so many years later, so my friends and I are thrilled that people can still hear us