God God Dammit Dammit: An Australian Punk-Funk Ensemble

God God Dammit Dammit: The Very First Day of SunshineGod God Dammit Dammit: The Very First Day of Sunshine (Capitalgames, 2/11/11)

God God Dammit Dammit: “Un-tie Rosie”

If you are reading this in the northern hemisphere, and it’s anytime before noon, chances are you’re missing the party of your life in South Adelaide, Australia. At the helm of the chaos is God God Dammit Dammit, a ferocious ensemble, comprised of some of the town’s most distinguished hardcore, experimental, and punk musicians, that has earned a reputation for being one of the town’s best live acts.

“When you’re playing a show, you want it to be a show,” lead vocalist Steve Pitkin says. “Everyone dances. The heat in the room is incredible. It gets messy.”

Melding genres from grindcore, funk, jazz, and rock, the band already boasts 13 members and shows no sign of slowing down. “If anything, it continuously gets larger,” Pitkin says.

Adelaide, located in the state of South Australia, is the country’s smallest major city, with a population just smaller than San Diego. Although Adelaide possesses an active arts community, Pitkin and guitarist Dave Gibson found themselves dissatisfied with the city’s musical landscape in the mid-2000s. “I’ve been a part of the Adelaide music scene for 10–15 years,” Pitkin says. “It’s genre-based, and I get bored quite quickly, and wanted to do something different. We talked about having this band that would increase the instruments and some of the elements. We wanted to start a band where we could have no boundaries, have a big canvas.”

Although the project started out as a simple punk band, the group gradually added horn players and percussionists. “We discovered that our friends grew up trying all of these different horns; they had to go back into the closet and dust off the cobwebs,” Pitkin says. Baritone-sax player Matt Smith adds, “We’ve all played in bands, or supported each other’s band, in some form or another before this incarnation, so it’s easy being in [God God Dammit Dammit] because everyone is so familiar with each other.”
 

“When you’re playing a show, you want it to be a show. Everyone dances. The heat in the room is incredible. It gets messy.”

Though the legions have grown, God God Dammit Dammit remains very much a democracy, with each member contributing to the writing process. “Everyone is involved,” Pitkin says. “We all relate through whatever instrument we’re using. Everyone is doing their own thing and has their own style, and Dave is a genius at bringing it all together.”

Likewise, each member is included in the business of putting out the music on member-run Noise Brigade Records. In less than three years, God God Dammit Dammit has released two EPs (including an all-dub side project titled God God Dubbit Dubbit), and planned to release its second full-length in the spring of 2010.

The recording process, like everything else the band does, expands its group-friendly dynamic. “We did get a bit excited,” Pitkin admits. “‘Who else do we know that plays something?’ We have a lot of creative friends who are not afraid to do whatever. It’s going to get even better.”

The diversity of its sound — and a spectacular live show that matches the aggression and vitality of the members’ punk and grindcore roots with the soulful swagger of classic funk and mayhem fueled from Zappa-heavy jazz — has helped God God Dammit Dammit achieve its goal of crossing genre and audience lines. “We’re seeing new faces and playing for new audiences all the time,” Pitkin says. “We’ve created a community here, in the smallest town in Australia.”

“We’ve tried to play nearly every venue in our city, so as to expand the people who hear us; [there are] only about a handful to cross off before we’ve played every one,” Smith jokes.

Equipped with two huge vans — and overlooking the complexities of touring with a large group and the difficulties that it faces with its remote geographic location — God God Dammit Dammit has taken its show on the road in Australia and has aspirations to tour the world.

“I live for playing live shows,” Pitkin says. “We all do. We can’t live without it. Everyone who thinks that rock ‘n’ roll is dead is bitter and in denial. That’s what I don’t want to be. That’s what we all don’t want to be. I want to feel pain from touring so much — in the best way. In a way, we’re still a pretty young band, still trying to blossom.”

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Trash Talk: Living Hardcore at Breakneck Speed

Trash Talk: Trash TalkTrash Talk: Trash Talk (Trash Talk Collective, 9/2/08)

Trash Talk: “Dig”

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“I’m the new guy in the band,” says Rashod Jackson, drummer for Sacramento’s Trash Talk. Though he has been in the band for less than a year, it’s been a particularly busy time for the thrash-spiked hardcore four-piece, which also includes guitarist Garret Stevenson, vocalist Lee Roy Spielman, and bassist Spencer Pollard. After releasing its Plagues… EP on Malfunction Records in January 2008, the group wrote and recorded its second release of the year, a self-titled album that also served as the debut record on its newly established Trash Talk Collective label.

For many rising bands wishing to leave their day jobs behind forever and support themselves purely off of their music, breaking away from a label could appear counterintuitive. Jackson agrees: “It was a bold thing to do, but sometimes you have to take risks.”

Pollard explains that the motivation for starting the label was to have complete control over the group’s creative vision. The process of cutting ties with the group’s former label was stressful, but Jackson says that things have been great lately, and he wants to make it clear. “No matter what you hear about Trash Talk and record labels,” he says, “we don’t have beef with anyone.”

Since forming in 2005, Trash Talk has chosen a lifestyle that has found its members practically living on the road. In fact, Jackson estimates that he’s only been home for a total of six weeks since joining the band. Though they uniformly enjoy the whirlwind pace, it did add some particular complications to the process of releasing an album on their own. Jackson credits Stevenson for dealing with the band’s business operations while on tour.

“There were days when he was super stressed out, and he couldn’t really talk to anyone,” Jackson says. “He was literally doing band business all day and all night. We’d wake up at nine in the morning after getting back late from a show the night before, and he’s still awake trying to get things done so the record could come out. He is the mastermind behind it all. I don’t know where the record would be without him.”

The results proved to be worth the struggle. Pollard says, “Luckily, we were able to lasso distribution through Revelation Records, gaining us equal distribution to that of our former label. So in the end, our efforts paid off, and we didn’t have to compromise anything in the process.” For now, Trash Talk Collective will focus exclusively on Trash Talk music, but Pollard says that the idea of releasing other projects in the future has come up.
 

“There’s no such thing as peace anymore. It’s not even just about the government. People in general are at war with themselves. This is pretty much saying there is no peace anywhere.”

Business aside, a listen to Trash Talk indicates that the split was the best decision for the group’s creative side. The band spent two days at Electrical Audio Studios in Chicago with recording engineer Steve Albini, who proved to be a great match for Trash Talk’s extreme, grinding sounds. Recorded straight to tape, Trash Talk captures all the grittiness of the band’s chaotic live show. With 12 songs clocking in at just over 14 minutes, like a car crash, it’s over in the blink of an eye but leaves a glut of destruction in its wake.

Trash Talk’s newfound aesthetic was further signified beyond its DIY mindset — and beyond creating its most brutal record to date — by the artwork that was chosen for the self-titled album’s cover. That art is based around the upside-down peace sign that the band adopted long ago, Pollard says, as a way of creating “an iconic image that our fans would be able to associate with us.” Jackson explains that for the band, the image is a way of expressing that “there’s no such thing as peace anymore. It’s not even just about the government. People in general are at war with themselves. This is pretty much saying there is no peace anywhere.”

At times, though, the band’s use of the emblem has been misconstrued. “The first time we were in Europe, people were saying it was some kind of racial imagery. Then they see three black dudes get on stage and they think, ‘Wait, this doesn’t make any sense!’” Jackson says. “We got asked about it numerous times. It means what it means to us, and as long as people know that, that’s what matters to us.”
 

Trash Talk

The cover art, designed by Sammy Winston and Alex Capasso, takes this idea of independence one step further. Featuring a chalkboard-black background with a white upside-down peace sign scrawled in its center, the lines making up the “tree” formation bust through the circle like the “A” in an anarchy symbol. Trash Talk, it wordlessly says, will resist any boundary or limitation placed in front of it.

Upon its release, Trash Talk elicited a mixed reaction from some longtime fans, largely due to its grimy, cutthroat sound as opposed to the relatively cleaner Plagues… (bringing to mind another Albini client, Nirvana, whose earlier Nevermind album sounds like a delicate flower next to the rawness of Albini-engineered In Utero). Nevertheless, Jackson contends, “We don’t care who likes it or who hates it. We love it.”

But along the stops of their never-ending tour, the members of Trash Talk have learned that they’re not the only ones. “The first time we went to Europe, we played our first show at a festival and kids knew the words and were going apeshit. We were looking at each other, saying, ‘Wow, is this for real?’ Punk and hardcore, no matter what anyone says, is alive and well all over the world.”

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Impure Wilhelmina: Swiss Metal with a Soft Spot for Pop

Impure Wilhelmina: Prayers and ArsonsImpure WilhelminaPrayers and Arsons (Get A Life, 11/25/08)

Impure Wilhelmina: “Cover Me With Kindness”

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The liner notes of Prayers and Arsons, the 2008 release from Swiss metal quartet Impure Wilhelmina, credit the City of Geneva Department of Culture for its support in making the record. In the United States, a “thank you” to any government organization by a hardcore band in any situation is largely unheard of, but in Switzerland (and several other arts-friendly countries), it’s a matter of routine.

Michael Schindl, guitarist and vocalist for Impure Wilhelmina, explains, “When we record, we pay approximately half of the money and the city helps with additional funds. All the bands in Geneva do this. If it is serious, you can have some money.” The financing helps to buy the band a luxury that it especially appreciates. “If we didn’t have this money, we could record, but we would have less time to make the record. This way, we know we can take a little more time.”

If Schindl has learned one thing since starting Impure Wilhelmina more than 12 years ago, it’s that taking one’s time often leads to the greatest results. “We were very young when we started,” he says. “We made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. Over the years, you learn a lot; you learn what not to do. Eventually, you begin to put out what you really feel, and not be too influenced by what you heard two weeks ago.”

Initially consisting of Schindl, his brother David on drums, and brothers Thierry and Didier Baertschiger respectively on guitar and bass, the band cut its teeth playing shows around Geneva and released a handful of singles and EPs before self-producing its first album, Afraid, in 1999. Bassist Mathias Perrin joined in 2000, collaborating on the colossal 2002 album I Can’t Believe I Was Born in July (Waiting For an Angel / Space Patrol Records), which helped the band establish a reputation for well-crafted and vivid, dark storytelling.
 

“Over the years, you learn a lot; you learn what not to do. Eventually, you begin to put out what you really feel, and not be too influenced by what you heard two weeks ago.”

Just after recording its follow-up, L’amour, la Mort, L’Enfance Perdue, in 2005, David and Thierry left Geneva to pursue their studies and were replaced by drummer Mario Togni and guitarist Christian Valleise (who also plays in Geneva’s sludge/grindcore outfit Knut). Once the new lineup was intact, the band set to work developing the material that would become the intricate and mysterious Prayers and Arsons.

For listeners discovering the band for the first time, Impure Wilhelmina may seem like Switzerland’s best-kept secret outside of a bank vault, but the group has developed a loyal following in its home country as well as neighbors France and Italy. Difficulties with the numerous borders throughout Europe, as well as the usual constraints of time, finance, and finding adequate promotions, have kept the group from touring much farther (like a stop in, say, Chicago), but thanks to the Internet and international distribution, it has found avid fans in all corners of the globe, including the United States and Indonesia, and some particularly devoted admirers in the Ukraine, which have elicited the band’s curiosity.

“Maybe because our music is so cold, like the country,” Schindl jokes. Though much of the band’s music conjures visions of barren, icy landscapes and breathes a noir-like sentiment, to call it “cold” is not entirely accurate. “Cold” implies certain levels of apathy and hardheartedness, attributes that definitely are not found in Impure Wilhelmina’s despairing, cinematic rock. As the band’s lead songwriter, Schindl has developed a unique style that incorporates elements of post-rock, hardcore, metal, and doom while also incorporating his pronounced pop sensibility.

“I’m an old fan of metal and other old stuff, but I like the melodies of pop music,” he says. “I try to mix metal and pop music. I can be found in my room a lot, singing and playing guitar.” The seamless way that these contrasting sounds are pieced together gives songs like Prayers and Arsons’ haunting opener “Continental Breed” and mood-shifting “The Rope” epic dimensions.

Perhaps by “cold,” Schindl is referring to the album’s lyrical content. “I like Swiss horror stories,” he says with a smile in his voice. “The lyrics on the record are about suicide, homicide, and genocide.” His knack for storytelling is apparent throughout the band’s catalog. “Knife,” which opens I Can’t Believe I Was Born in July with the plucking of a single acoustic guitar, finds Schindl softly singing, “Today I will take my knife / Kill my daughter and my wife.”

The band’s generous screams may create tension and drama, but when cloaked in sweet melodies that otherwise could be mistaken as love songs and lullabies, such unexpectedly violent lyrics become even more cryptic. Prayers and Arsons refines this narrative tradition so that from start to finish, the album plays like an audio anthology of ghost stories, exemplified by tunes like “Poisons and Blandes,” which takes inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.

Although death and decay permeate their music, the members of Impure Wilhelmina seemingly live normal, active lives, juggling their band with family life, day jobs, and other musical projects, including Valleise’s ongoing activity with Knut and Schindl’s second band, Vancouver.

The balancing act is worth it, according to Schindl. “You just have to go with it,” he says. “Tonight you have rehearsal after work. You take holidays for touring. It’s just a passion we have…if you don’t have the motivation, you can forget it.”

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Ancestors: Mythological Prog Metal

Ancestors: Neptune With FireAncestorsNeptune With Fire (Tee Pee, 3/25/08)

Ancestors: “Neptune With Fire”

[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Ancestors-Neptune-With-Fire.mp3|titles=Ancestors: “Neptune With Fire”]

Sometimes things just seem too obvious. When Los Angeles five-piece Ancestors formed in 2006, its members were surprised that they couldn’t pinpoint a band that already had melded ’70s progressive rock with the stoner/doom metal that erupted out of California during the 1990s. Regarding that, guitarist and lead singer Justin Maranga says, “They seem to go hand in hand, to the point where we were kind of shocked no one had combined them before, and we were wondering when someone was going to beat us to it.” But the band wasn’t devised with the intent to pioneer any particular new sound. Maranga puts it simply: “The important thing is to play the kind of music you’d want to hear.”

Along with Maranga, Ancestors includes bassist Nick Long, drummer Brandon Pierce, organist J. Christopher Watkins, and chief lyricist and ambient-noise expert Chico Foley, a London-by-way-of-Berlin transplant. Their two-song, nearly forty-minute debut, Neptune With Fire, is filled with dramatic twists and turns, sprawling guitar solos, and on the title track, a four-part narrative depicting a mythological King Neptune wrestling with the burden that comes with having unlimited power.

Maranga maintains that the band is suited by the style, which is partially inspired by Foley’s early observations upon relocating to Los Angeles. “We’re all fans of nerdy storytelling music,” Maranga says. “The traditional epic — Rush’s Hemispheres, King Crimson — I think that the music was begging for that kind of lyric.” Foley adds, “A whimsical style wouldn’t really go with our sound.”
 

“We’re all fans of nerdy storytelling music.  The traditional epic — Rush’s Hemispheres, King Crimson — I think that the music was begging for that kind of lyric.”

Ancestors’ members long have been familiar faces at all-ages, vegan-friendly arts space The Smell, which is quickly building a national reputation, if not international, as a hub for up-and-coming, unique artists. “It’s one of the best DIY venues in the world,” Foley says. “In comparison with London, there is no way you can find a place to put on a DIY show. The police here really don’t give a shit about what goes on downtown.”

“That kind of ethic really appeals to people,” Maranga says. “It’s why venues like [legendary San Francisco Bay-area punk club] Gillman Street has held up over the years. People like the way it can be self-run, the way bands are picked, and the fact that bands can just go and play. People don’t like rules and being told what to do.” An added bonus is that bands are able to introduce their music to audiences that may not typically seek out metal or prog-rock groups on their own. “We’ve played shows with bands that we don’t fit so well with musically,” Maranga says, “but we’re all being influenced by the same stuff in different ways, and that somehow appeals to the same crowd.”

A distribution SNAFU delayed the release of Neptune with Fire in the United States until Fall 2008, but the album had been available for purchase in Europe for several months prior. In the meantime, Ancestors has been hard at work developing new material. “There is going to be less mythological premise, and a more humanized context of you and me as opposed to story,” Foley says. “The last album was us becoming us, and now we are beginning to fulfill our potential.”

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Tombs: Political, Apocalyptic Metal

Tombs: Winter HoursTombs: Winter Hours (Relapse, 2/17/09)

Tombs: “Gossamer”

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“It’s about control and discipline,” Tombs frontman/guitarist Mike Hill says. The Brooklyn metal three-piece and I are sitting at a picnic table outside Waterloo Records during the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas. Hill’s words particularly stand out against the carefree atmosphere of the five-day, live-music festival. Outside a business conference and trade show at the Austin Convention Center, SXSW can easily resemble an independent-music Mardi Gras, with many concertgoers drinking waterfalls of Texas’ Lonestar Beer, seeing as many shows as physics allows, and generally partying their hearts out around the clock.

Tombs is on its first tour since the release of its debut full-length, Winter Hours. The album is a haunting hybrid of metal and hardcore, covered with thick coatings of noise and pristine melody. At Waterloo, the band completed its third set in roughly 24 hours after an overnight drive from Little Rock, Arkansas. Despite the demanding schedule, its members show no sign of fatigue; their commitment to discipline and control has paid off.

“To do what we’re doing at the level we want to be doing it at, you have to have a certain amount of dedication and a certain amount of professionalism and discipline,” Hill says. “There is a very narrow margin of personal conduct that is acceptable.”

He goes on, “I’m talking about being able to go as hard as you can, to know that you’ve really brought something to the table. There is no connotation of financial success or anything other than a level of personal achievement.” Hill is pleasant and conversational, but there is a serious undertone to everything he says, like a revered sensei in a ninja film waxing philosophy to his disciples. “In this substrata of marginal music, it’s easy to get covered over by other people unless you have your act together.”

When it comes to the dos and don’ts of playing in an independent band, Hill certainly knows what he is talking about. Starting in Boston in the early 1990s, he has been a staple in the underground hardcore community, playing in a number of bands and fronting hardcore powerhouse Anodyne for the better part of a decade (1997–2005) before starting the esoteric Versomna. An accomplished producer as well as a musician, Hill has recorded albums by heavy bands such as Isis, Lickgoldensky, and Piebald, and he owns his own label, Black Box Recordings.

Hill started Tombs in 2007. Bassist Carson Daniel James joined a few months later, after original bassist Dominic Seita amicably parted to develop NYC doom quartet A Storm of Light. The trio released a self-titled EP on Black Box / Level Plane before signing to Relapse Records, and drummer Andrew Hernandez joined just after the sessions for Winter Hours were complete, learning the band’s entire set in just nine days prior to a European tour.

Like Hill, James and Hernandez are both rooted in the DIY punk community. Hernandez relays humorous tales of his formative years as a 14-year-old concert promoter from a small town in Massachusetts. He would find bands’ phone numbers on seven-inch records and randomly call them to ask them to play a show or for a place to crash after taking a one-way bus trip to concerts in their cities.
 

“I’m talking about being able to go as hard as you can, to know that you’ve really brought something to the table. There is no connotation of financial success or anything other than a level of personal achievement.”

“I figured that I’d either find a place to stay or I’d sleep on some steps,” Hernandez recalls. “I was at the show; that was all that mattered.” Two of his most successful calls, as it turns out, were to future band-mate Hill during his Anodyne years and to his future label manager, Relapse’s Gordon Conrad.

Hill’s sentiment towards control is echoed by his band-mates. “We like a certain amount of self-sacrifice,” Hernandez says. Although they are far from monks, the members of Tombs take pride in staunch dedication to their craft and their willingness to push themselves to the limit with their music. They maintain a rigorous practice schedule, whether writing new material or preparing for a tour.

“It’s learning how to react without thinking,” James explains. “It’s doing what seems obvious, rather than fumbling.” Hill agrees. “In a live setting, anything can happen,” he says. “It’s like when you’re on a special recon mission for military operations: you rely on your training to get you through everything. We rely on practice to get us through the rough spots. Personally, I am using more effects and technology with this band than I have in the past. With that component, a lot of things can go wrong.”

Winter Hours was recorded by Ian Whalen and John Chambers at Etching Tin Studios in Richmond, Virginia. With the financial support afforded by the new label, Hill was able to step away from the control room for the first time in order to concentrate on his songs. “I still wanted to have production influence,” he says, “but as far as engineering goes, it was more important for me to focus on execution of parts and performances.”

Most of Tombs’ songs are developed out of Hill’s ideas, with the other members writing their parts during rehearsals. James observes that, because of the limitations of practicing as a three-piece, the other members often learn about the atmospheric effects that Hill has planned for each track only once the recording process has begun. For his part, Hill says that every sound on the record is deliberate. Nothing is left to chance.

“I spend a lot of my time planning it all out so that when we get to the studio, it’s strictly execution,” he says. “I know a lot of it sounds experimental, but there is really none of that stuff going on.” The overall effect, best articulated on opening number “Gossamer” and “The Divide,” is much like a heavier take on the “Wall of Sound” developed by Phil Spector, a producer whose studio work Hill especially admires.

Lyrically, much of Winter Hours was inspired by a series of nightmares Hill had about the Apocalypse, which, in hindsight, he relates to his dissatisfaction with the Bush administration (though his penchant for reading about conspiracy theories couldn’t have helped much).

“It was kind of subconscious,” he says. “It was bubbling to the surface for a year. Now that I have a little distance, I feel like a lot of it was the Republican presence and George W. Bush. I feel optimistic now that he is out of the office. There was a certain powerlessness and vulnerability that came from that time. Filtering other emotions through that resulted in the bulk of the lyrics on that record. They’re personal ruminations filtered through political observations.”

Though the presidential office has since changed hands, Tombs doesn’t see the mood of its music changing. “There’s always a dark cloud,” James notes. Hill explains, “The music itself is just intensity. There are bands like Michael Gira from Swans who play acoustic music, but it is still the most intense music there is.”

With Winter Hours still fresh on the shelves, Tombs is already working new material, and it has become evident that though the atmosphere may stay the same, the music will differ from anything that the band has done before. “The changing of our drummer will, without a question, propel our music in a new direction, whether we consciously go there or not, which is good,” James says. “It’s a constant flux, without having to be pigeonholed into one thing.”

Tombs is open to new sounds in its music, so long as the inspiration comes from within the band, rather than following trends. “If [a change in sound] is true and you alienate someone, at least you’re keeping yourself happy,” Hill says. Yet in the members’ quest for their own satisfaction, they’ve neglected to realize that they are making music that outsiders can enjoy as well.

The members of Tombs are genuinely surprised at the positive reception that they’ve received from fans, explaining that they have no expectations of others. “It’s one of the main things I apply to most of the aspects of my life,” Hill says. “If you don’t expect anything, that gives you a certain level of freedom.”

Tombs holds itself to different standards altogether. “There is a division, really,” Hill adds. “I demand an incredible amount from myself, but it is all personal achievement. Do I expect anyone to acknowledge what I do? I would say no. When I go out of this world, I want to know that I did my best. I want to go out knowing that I did what I could, regardless if anyone cares. If people want to acknowledge it, that’s great. But I don’t expect that from anybody.”

Still, people are increasingly paying attention, and in its short time as a band, Tombs has found fans in underground metal and punk circles as well as new listeners in some unlikely places. James recalls a recent show in San Antonio opening for British electronic producer Tricky where a new fan approached the group and mused, “You are up there just doing your thing. It doesn’t seem like you’re writing for anyone but yourselves.”

James pauses before remarking, “I guess what it comes down to is that we’re still three guys in a practice space who are friends and live in the same area, playing music that we want to play without thinking outwardly about what other people want to hear.”

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Vernon Chatman: A Twisted TV Writer’s Inadvertent Porn Comedy

Vernon Chatman is a man of many talents. The three-time Emmy Award winner is a member of art collective and electro-rock band PFFR, and he’s a co-creator of television comedy Doggy Fizzle Televizzle, (starring Snoop Dogg), MTV kids’-show-gone-wrong Wonder Showzen, and recently, Adult Swim program Xavier: Renegade Angel.

He has written for The Chris Rock Show and Conan O’Brien, among others, and may be best known as the voice of South Park‘s marijuana-pushing corporate mascot “Towelie.” Chatman’s repertoire has been described as eclectic, twisted (Wonder Showzen, for instance, had a sketch titled “Hitler Kid”), and — depending on who you’re asking and when — alternately hilarious and disturbing.

Though Chatman’s brain overflows with its own absurdities, the inspiration for his new film, Final Flesh, came from an unlikely source. “My friend told me that he saw there were companies that made custom-made porn, and you could make them do whatever you wanted them to do,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a nurse sitting on a yellow sheet saying the name ‘Jacob’ over and over again. I don’t know what the normal thing is. Feet? Hamsters? I don’t know.”

Vernon Chatman

Speculating on what sort of oddities get other people hot is fun, but what Chatman found most intriguing about the concept was, he says, “the fact that a person would need their thing, and would only be able to find it if they could custom order it.” He had a revelation.

“If these people are already going to have sex in any way, or any style, you can get them to do anything you want and they will do it sincerely,” he says. “That’s what they do. In porn, it’s totally sincere; they just think this is a fetish. A lack of artifice, or total artifice — that makes them committed to total insanity and to give it their all.”

For Chatman, the foray into avant-garde porn was a refreshing change from his animation projects. “In animation, you have total control; you can make anything happen,” he says. “You can make the Earth blow up and bloom into a flower as easy as you can make a guy walk down the street. The other thing is that you have all this control, and it kills you. [In my animation team] we’re super meticulous. We go frame by frame and are über control freaks. This was about surrendering all control.”

He got to work writing the script, which he dubbed Final Flesh, divided it into sections, and commissioned four porn-production companies around the country to film them. “I wanted to see if I could make an inadvertent comedy on purpose,” he explains. “If you want to do something as an outsider, you can’t, because it’s catch-22. This was an attempt to do that.”

“If you want to do something as an outsider, you can’t, because it’s catch-22. This was an attempt to do that.”

Final Flesh, a compilation of the four short films, depicts a family unit of a father, mother, and daughter — represented by a wide cross-section of American porn actors in age, attractiveness, and acting ability — as an atom bomb drops. They are, presumably, the “final flesh” left on Earth. From there, anything that can happen does.

(Spoiler alert!) A woman gives birth to a piece of meat, which she names Mr. Peterson as she suckles “him” to her breast. A man tries, literally, to return to the womb headfirst.

“I don’t consider sex complete until birth,” Chatman says adamantly, “and this movie is proof of that.” Later on, characters receive messages from divine beings via fortune cookies, fax machines, and jars of change spilled on the floor. People grow smiley faces on their backs that “make out” with each other, or develop deformities such as being clad with never-ending layers of panties. A woman shits her brains out. People are “scared to death” and brought back to life.

Chatman remained completely hands-off in the production process. “I made the script so that as long as they stuck with the script, I would be happy no matter what they did,” he explains. To assist, he included instructions, such as guiding a male actor to play the part as if “your vagina was having a nightmare.” Other instructions include, ”Say this line in a way that would make the Earth crumple around you,” or ”After he says this line, he melts inside himself and faces the complete truth about himself for the first time.”

He explains, “I wanted to get them to do things that were bizarre and strange and things [whose meaning] they would be forced to grapple while they were doing them, but they had to do it all as they could expend with their resources. I wanted to weigh the lowbrow down with as much highbrow as possible and fold in a heaping helping of super, über lowbrow into the mix.” This led to hilarious moments including an actress fantasizing about overthrowing the capitalist regime, and another where the players argue with, and try to outsmart, God.

As far as actual sex acts are concerned, Final Flesh is decidedly soft core. “I didn’t want to have any sex in this because I think sex is a disgusting habit not to be shared with the general populace,” Chatman says. “But there had to be enough in there so they believed it was someone’s fetish. I used the word ‘sensual’ a lot in the script and ‘fantasy.’”’

Vernon Chatman

But the films are anything but sexy. “I started to realize how truly uncomfortable things were and how surreal things were,” Chatman says. “If they didn’t know what to do in a scene, they would say, ‘Let’s try to make this sexy!’ and it was funny, because it shouldn’t be.” There is an inverse relationship between sex and sexiness in Final Flesh; the more explicitly the actors interpreted a scene, the creepier and more bizarre it became.

However misguided, though, Chatman has nothing but respect for all of his actors. “They can make anything porn-y,” he marvels. “That’s why they’re professionals, and that’s why we as amateurs can never compare. And that’s why I believe in God now more than ever.”

“I never really let them in on the joke because I don’t really know how to explain it; I don’t think it’s a joke on them,” he continues. “I would hope that they would like it. There are varying levels of awareness. No one questioned the sincerity about it. They were aware that this was pure and sincere and not commissioned as a joke. I don’t think anyone dismissed it as a joke — hopefully not.”

Final Flesh was licensed for distribution by Drag City Records, a company known more for its association with acclaimed musicians like Will Oldham and Joanna Newsom than adult films, though Chatman contends, “If they start going down the road of distributing mostly porn and Smog albums, I’ll consider that a victory.” With the release of the film in the fall of 2009, Chatman feels that the ultimate mission has been accomplished. “It makes me laugh,” he says. “I’m not necessarily going to do this again, but there are a lot of ways to apply this concept to other things.”

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Behind the Mask: Revealing the Motives of Incognito Artists

Whether a mask is used to emphasize a point of view, to enhance the spectacle of the stage show, or purely for the sake of fun, it’s clear that in today’s contemporary music scene, the reasons behind using masks and costumes are as varied as the artists that wear them.

“It adds an element,” says Justin Pearson, bassist /vocalist for San Diego sci-fi grind-punk four-piece The Locust, a band that dons hooded, skintight, full-body uniforms. “It’s hard to say how you feel when you do it; you’re walking on stage with three other people with absurd outfits. We’re part of the show, and part of the live performance is the energy, negative or positive. It adds a level of intensity.”

“It’s all about using your imagination,” says Tom Fec, who performs under the name Tobacco as a solo artist and as a member of dreamy psych-hop outfit Black Moth Super Rainbow. He employs masks as tools to obscure his persona, rather than The Locust’s edgy, over-the-top approach. “I think that’s a really important piece to making an impact,” he says. “When you know everything about a person, then it’s like watching someone you know up there, and it becomes something else completely. The more you know, the less you care about knowing.”

RJ Krohn, better known as soulful hip-hop artist RJD2, is a performer who has experimented with masks and costumes on stage as much for his own amusement as for the audiences at his concert. “I have always felt that theatrics,” he says, “or at least dressing up, was an obvious way to say, ‘At least I’m trying here, folks,’ to a crowd. Just walking on stage in a T-shirt and jeans is cool if you are a genius. I, however, have questionable talent, which needs to be deep fried, slathered in a tasty barbecue sauce, and dressed up like real talent.”

RJD2

Krohn’s first experiment with costumes was as an alter ego that he named “Mo’ Buttons,” in a costume decked out with tons of buttons with a sampler strapped to his chest, in order to highlight that on stage, he plays the device like a keyboard or drum machine rather than simply pressing “play.” The sampler proved to be too heavy to wear comfortably every night, but when Krohn discovered that he could incorporate a MIDI controller to run the equipment rather than the entire unit, he took the premise and his sense of comedy to the next level, introducing crowds to his latest persona.

“When I had [the equipment techniques] down, I realized that it needed a way to differentiate itself from the rest of the show,” he says. “A guy just putting on and taking off a wireless spinning MIDI controller is just dumb. So the alter ego became ‘Commissioner Crotchbuttons,’because I had built the thing into a belt that spins (à la ZZ Top), and when you have a musical instrument planted on your crotch, the jokes just write themselves.”
 

“When you know everything about a person, then it’s like watching someone you know up there, and it becomes something else completely. The more you know, the less you care about knowing.”
– Tobacco

Like Krohn, The Locust’s uniforms are rooted in a sense of humor but also an equally strong sense of rebellion. Formed in 1994, The Locust began wearing costumes by the late ’90s as a reaction to what it felt was unusual backlash from the underground press, which focused more on the band’s clothes than its music. “We were just wearing our street clothes,” Pearson says. “We were poor punk kids. Somehow that became the topic of the conversation instead of our music. It was sort of a pointless round-table discussion, and people seemed really agitated with us. We weren’t a racist band. We weren’t fighting people. We were playing music, and for whatever reason, they criticized us beyond the music.”

Its first costumes, fuzzy vests and goggles, were created to be tongue in cheek. Surprisingly, as The Locust developed as a band, the costume concept stuck. “We never really thought about it,” Pearson says. “We wrote music and we played music — jagged, funny, quirky parts. We started figuring out things to do musically that coincided with us doing a visual element. It happened by chance, and then it evolved. We look ridiculous, but we’re totally serious. Maybe it’s hard for a band to achieve that? It became very honest. We’re not fucking around or being influenced by this other thing. It wasn’t self-conscious.”

The Locust

In turn, the uniform concept has affected The Locust’s performance style, which Pearson says also plays off the rambunctious stage antics and overt masculinity of many of its peers in the hardcore scene. “We found ourselves with this borderline homoerotic, nerdy, sci-fi thing,” he says. “We look like robots; we move jaggedly. We don’t have breakdown parts. We’re stationary, and you can’t run or jump. It was very technical and confined to a spot. We decided, ‘Let’s do the complete opposite [of many tour mates] and stand there and not move. And we’ll stop and be completely still.’ There is a physical edginess to it beyond the fact that we looked like these science-fiction creatures.”

Though The Locust has grown an overall aesthetic from both its musical and visual components, and Krohn is happy to poke fun at himself for the sake of the show, the reality for many musicians is that a costume or mask is a form of armor, granting them space from the watchful eye of the crowd. Take San Antonio DJ Ernest Gonzales. Under his own name, Gonzales creates music that is chilled and collected, often combining elements of indie rock, pop, and hip hop.
 

“I’m an introverted kind of person. A mask enables you to be whatever you want to be on stage…like getting drunk without having to drink.”
– Mexicans with Guns

When he began toying with a more bass-heavy dance sound, he opted to present it under a different name. He created an alter ego that he called Mexicans with Guns, topping off the character with a Mexican wrestling mask. “It’s branding, in a sense,” Gonzales says. “If I’ve been doing a different sound, then coming out of left field with a different sound could be positive, or it could be negative. For me, it felt like two separate projects and sounds. The sounds are so different; I realized [that] I’d be playing to different venues and crowds.”

Having an alter ego enabled Gonzales to overcome his apprehensions about testing new musical waters, and specifically, wearing a mask allowed the introverted Gonzales to bring out a different side of his personality. “When I’m on stage and I have the mask, I’m able to be more loose,” he says. “I’m an introverted kind of person. A mask enables you to be whatever you want to be on stage…like getting drunk without having to drink.”

“With the mask, it could be anybody up there,” he adds. “Also, the idea of the mask is very important to Mexican culture. El Santo (Mexican wrestler Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta) has been in 80-plus films. The wrestlers come out and they never reveal their face. It’s very political too; I wanted to bring out the mask and build up [the character] as a hero.”

Mexicans with Guns

Like Gonzales, others create cultural discourse by tying themselves to an era. For LA DJ Alfred Darlington, who plays under the name Daedelus and dons full Victorian suits on stage, the decision to perform in costume had its origins in the philosophy of his music. “I have a big interest in invention,” he says. “I felt that the Victorian period was a period of great invention. Now I’m pretty committed to it, and it feels more appropriate to me than wearing my street clothes.”

In Darlington’s meticulously constructed electronic music, every sound is deliberate; there are no improvisations and no room for extraneous noise. Sonically, it could be seen as an answer to Dandyism, a philosophy that Darlington finds particularly inspiring. “Beau Brummell was the prototypical dandy,” he says. “He was the first person to adopt attire as a full-time religion. Performance art didn’t exist at the time, so this was revolutionary. I liked the idea that that everything he did was deliberate. It took him four hours a day to get ready because every gesture he made was artistic. Philosophically, I related in the sense that in my music, every sound is planned. Dressing up like that helps me get into the mindset.”

Darlington describes the dedication to his costumes as “masochistic” in some ways. “I’m committed to my music and my art, and it does feel like I’ve taken on the burdens of the role,” he says. “I sweat through my clothes, but the idea of stripping it down seems ludicrous.” The Locust’s Pearson echoes his thoughts, saying,“There have been times when you’re like, ‘This is so stupid.’ Sometimes it’s been pretty brutal — mainly your face, because some of the masks haven’t had a mouth opening and were attached to our shirts. You could drink through it, but you couldn’t spit. One time I was sick on tour and threw up in the mask and had to swallow it. [Our drummer] Gabe [Serbian] has flipped his mask up, and he’d throw up if he’d overexerted himself. Sometimes with singing, I’ll get vertigo or tunnel vision if I hold the note until the end of the measure.”

Darlington doesn’t wear an actual mask, but wearing the 19th Century attire accomplishes the same goal for him. The same can be said for hip-hop artist Javocca Davis, a.k.a. Vockah Redu, a prominent figure in New Orleans’ bounce community. Davis incorporates face paint, theatrical costumes, and lavish sets into a subgenre of hip hop that is notorious for its energy, overtly sexual dancers, “triggerman” beats, and party-like atmosphere.

Daedelus

“I have a big imagination, and I bring that to the stage,” he says. “I don’t just want to be a rapper on stage with a chain. This is the theater part of me. I love to paint my face; it goes with my music. Why wear a T-shirt when I can demand the stage?”

Davis studied theater and performance arts at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, but until the past year or so, he kept his two passions separate. “I wasn’t being open minded,” he says. “I thought a rapper was supposed to look this way or that way. It was limiting. Now I’m more mature. I’m representing me as a person.”

As Vockah Redu, Davis follows a tradition of artists such as Michael Jackson, Prince, and Madonna — as well as contemporaries like Saul Williams — who have toyed with sexuality and larger-than-life stage personas. Others like Tom Fec, however, are content to let their legends grow from speculation.

This includes atmospheric electro-pop trio Castratii, an Australian act that only performs in a mask of complete darkness to become anonymous or even invisible. Convention often dictates that having the right look to accompany one’s music is a key factor in launching a successful career in the entertainment business. Ironically for Fec and Castratii, not having an image has resulted in more attention from the press and music lovers.

“People are definitely more interested in not knowing right now, in particular as everything is so easily found online,” Castratii’s Jonathan Wilson says. “We like to make our own judgment on artists or musicians. We don’t need them to be real. We prefer the myth of the artist.”

“The usual stuff that comes along with being in music seems irrelevant to me,” says Fec, who gives few interviews and fewer (and often obscured) photo shoots, and who uses effects on his vocal recordings. “If I was a guy with a guitar singing about my life, it might make sense, but I have this fucked-up world that I want people to interpret for themselves. It really shouldn’t be about me.”
 

“I don’t just want to be a rapper on stage with a chain. This is the theater part of me. I love to paint my face; it goes with my music. Why wear a T-shirt when I can demand the stage?”
– Vockah Redu

Recently, Fec has invited a mask-wearing friend to join him on stage, and due to this lack of a visual public persona, audience members often walk away thinking that the masked figure is Fec. “I’ve always liked confusing people,” Fec says. “It makes everything more fun when you’re not sure what’s going on. If they mistake him for me, then I’ve done my job.” At first glance, Fec’s approach may appear as if he is having fun at the expense of his audience, but he maintains that his anonymity has given his listeners more room to interpret the music.

The members of Castratii, meanwhile, have found creative satisfaction in complete darkness — despite their visual- arts backgrounds in sculpture and installation. “Darkness is so much better for many things,” Wilson says. “It can be creepy and frightening or soft and sensual. It encompasses so many different good and evil connotations.

We also like the idea that we can barely see each other while we play. Our only link is the music.” Without the ability to actually “watch” the band, Castratii’s audience leaves its shows with a unique experience.

“We find that the sound can consume a person in a completely new way if the performer is left in the dark,” Wilson says. “It becomes about the sonic and not how it is made. When seeing a rock show or even a classical performance, most people walk away with an idea [that] they were closer to that performer as a person. They may also have an insight as to how those particular sounds are made. This is something we want to keep to ourselves — our sounds and our persons. This way it can retain a little mystery.”

Darlington, who believes that costumes and masks also can be protective forces, adds, “We live in an era where people regurgitate media. You are under this possible gaze, and it goes up on Flickr; it goes up on You- Tube. Everybody has a part and takes a role in forming your media presence. You always have to be prepared to be scrutinized.”

Although music as an art form is first and foremost for the ears, the fact that so many artists take on the additional task of elaborate visual schemes, whether masked, costumed, or otherwise disguised, is telling of its multi-sensory qualities. Perhaps thinking of music and art as separate forms is erroneous. “It tells a story,” Davis says. “Every show tells a story.”

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Kap Bambino: French Bedroom Electro-Rock

Kap Bambino: BlacklistKap Bambino: Blacklist (Because Music, 6/2/09)

Kap Bambino: “Dead Lazers”

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Today, Caroline Martial and Orion Bouvier, of Bordeaux, France, are in Los Angeles. Tomorrow, they play a one-off in San Francisco as electro-rock duo Kap Bambino. Their handful of US tour dates will be followed by one-offs in Mexico, Colombia, and more, which is a pretty sweet tour itinerary for a band that has yet to record outside its own bedrooms. “We are so lucky because we never expected to move like this,” Martial says. “It’s really cool every time we have the chance to do things like this.”

Kap Bambino is a prime example of the adage “do what you love and the rest will follow.” A chance meeting at a party first led Martial, a quirky pop vocalist who performed under the name Kima France, to Bouvier, a multi-instrumentalist who was growing bored with the limitations of traditional rock. After realizing they had much in common, the two agreed to start their own label, Wwilko. “Wwilko releases music from non-commercial artists — indie freaky music,” Martial says. “Now we have 20 releases. We do everything by ourselves — the artwork, the drawings, everything.”

In 2003, they began Kap Bambino, their first joint venture as musicians. Since then, they have self-released a handful of EPs and two full-lengths, and have independently toured the world. Their third album, Blacklist, was released in Europe at the tail end of 2009, finally making a splash stateside in the spring of 2010.

Kap Bambino’s worldwide fan base may be on the upswing, but the band is bent on maintaining its regular DIY operations. “No one controls what we do,” Martial says. “We want to do everything ourselves, and [our label] was up for that. If we start tomorrow to have someone else control our artwork, or our image, or recording, it’s not going to be Kap Bambino. We record in the bedroom. We’ve never been at the studio. We want to try to go to the studio sometime, but we really want to keep the texture that we already have and the artwork. Kap is not just music; it’s a lot of things.”
 

“We really want to arrive on stage like a computer but give it a human rock side, like rock and punk. Orion is the machine; I am the human.”

In today’s underground climate, few styles of music remain as polarizing as electronic dance music. In recent years, artists have blended styles in increasingly new ways, resulting in hybrids such as acoustic folk with backbeats, hip hop infused with Brit pop, and frat rock with African-influenced rhythms. Though some artists softly introduce listeners to new sounds in subtle ways with variations on already familiar formats, Kap Bambino’s blend is more aggressive and unwieldy.

Blacklist’s title track, for instance, finds Martial’s voice manipulated until it is as sharp as razorblades, creating a piercing sound over pulverizing, heavy synth beats. This brutality is balanced elsewhere on the album with an unassuming quirkiness, distinct pop sensibilities, and Martial’s naturally girlish French accent making it easy to imagine tunes like “Batcaves” and “Dead Lazers” appearing on commercial radio. Due to this versatility, the duo has drawn listeners across what often are very strong fan lines.

“We just want to do what we like,” Martial explains. “Of course, that breaks the rules of electro-rock. It’s bizarre that in our crowd, we have guys from the rock scene, electro scene, metal — it’s a big mix. It’s what we like because that’s what we are. We try our best to stay in the middle of things. We don’t want to have a stamp; [we] just want to create music.”

As a reflection of this attitude, the duo’s tour schedule might include dates at DIY art spaces, elite dance clubs, and metal dives in the same week.

Even if the music isn’t enough to reach new fans, Kap Bambino’s live shows could win over any skeptic. Martial mesmerizes the crowd as she climbs gear, writhes around the stage, and, in true punk-rock fashion, breaks the fourth wall between artist and listener while Bouvier, hair in his face, stands collectedly at his electronics. “We really want to arrive on stage like a computer but give it a human rock side, like rock and punk. Orion is the machine; I am the human,” Martial laughs.

The antics, as well as Martial’s bold clothing choices (she’s as likely to sport a gold lamé bathing suit as a T-shirt and leggings), may appear over the top, but Martial insists that both of these elements are merely an outpouring of her inner self.

“When we first started Kap Bambino, I was really young, and for maybe the first 20 gigs, I was really dressed up. I finally realized that people were just talking about my outfit, like, ‘Look at that girl; she’s wearing a wedding dress,’ and I said, ‘Oh, my god, no!’ I just want people to listen to my stuff. I decide to chill and just concentrate on the music. I’m always wearing my little jacket, but that’s the way I am in life. I can’t stay pretty. Sometimes I try to do good makeup, but after two songs, everything falls down and I just look like a zombie.”

Martial remarks that with all things considered, Kap Bambino isn’t necessarily doing anything that hasn’t been done before. “We are not original,” she says. “Yesterday, I jumped in the crowd four or five times, but I’m not the first one.” Even so, the duo’s sincerity and fuck-it-all attitude harkens back to a time when punk was fresh and daring and anything could happen.

“I don’t come from art school; I come from the street,” Martial adds. “It’s very simple. No bullshit. I think Orion’s music gives me a trance, and maybe that is the reason Kap Bambino is how it is. I hope so, because I don’t understand myself.”

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Tim Barry: No-Bullshit, Stripped-Down Country Folk

Tim Barry: “Tacoma”
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Tim

The night after a Chicago performance from singer/songwriter Tim Barry, a man in a local drinking establishment learns that he missed the show. “I wish I would have known Tim was in town,” he tells his friend. “Sometimes I go home after work and watch his old videos on YouTube to make myself feel better about the world.” This isn’t a teenager talking. It’s a grown man, roughly 40 years old.

On tour to celebrate the release of his fourth solo album, 28th & Stonewall (Suburban Home), Barry seems to have an uplifting effect on everyone who meets him, projecting a natural, confident charisma that brings out the best in those around him. Even the opening band from the previous night — Roanoke, Virginia swamp-country quintet Red Clay River — drove 168 miles out of its way to give Barry and his dog, Emma, a lift to the venue when his van broke down.

Speaking with Barry, or listening to his onstage banter, one gets the sense that maybe life isn’t so complicated, and that the answers to life’s toughest questions are right in front of us if we just open our eyes. “I don’t understand…all of these motherfuckers who complain about their life, and then they go back to work,” he says.

Barry is best known as the vocalist for melodic hardcore-punk band Avail, a staple of Lookout! Records throughout the 1990s. With Barry at the helm, Avail’s heartfelt, spirited songs made the members into heroes to disenfranchised youth in hardcore scenes around the world.

“I want things to be right — to acknowledge the ills around us and praise the beauty of change.”

In 2006, Barry released his first solo release, Laurel Street Demo 2005. The music changed from charged punk rock with pop leanings to stripped-down country-folk ballads, but Barry’s sincerity and humility continued to stand out among his peers in the often plastic-feeling world of the entertainment industry.

“I don’t care about how songs were written, or how much money you make,” he says. “It’s just all fucking boring, that some people base their ego off of minimal accomplishments of art, or filmmaking, or ballet dancing.”

Despite his dedication to his songwriting, and what many would consider a successful music career by underground standards, Barry remains ambivalent about the true value of art and music in society. “Is it meaningless?” he asks. “I think some people are born to do stuff. I might be too black and white for philosophy.”

Barry is in an admittedly unique position. Still based in Virginia, Barry chooses to live off the grid but is as likely to take off from his humble abode to tour Australia or Europe in support of his latest record as he is to go on an adventure via freight train (a favorite pastime).

“I live in a shed with a compost bucket and no running water,” he says. “I’ve never been happier. I don’t need a lot. As long as my niece and my sister are well taken care of, I’m happy.”

His tremendous work ethic and thirst for knowledge can be seen beyond his extensive music catalog and exhaustive tour schedule. He’s maintained a long-running seasonal gig as a jack-of-all-trades for the Richmond Ballet during the company’s annual run of The Nutcracker. Lately, in what spare time he does have, he’s been teaching himself law and economics. The mix has benefited him creatively. By his account, the songs just pour out.

“Prosser’s Gabriel,” off of 28th & Stonewall, is a prime example. “The song ‘Prosser’s Gabriel’—I didn’t really write it,” Barry says. “It just showed up. It’s about the city I live in and the ultimate neglect of the people in power to the people that make up the town.” The song was written in tribute to Gabriel Prosser, a literate slave from Richmond, Virginia who was set to lead the country’s first major slave uprising.

When news of the revolt was leaked, Gabriel was hanged along with 26 of his co-conspirators, and the ensuing paranoia led to the first of what would become Jim Crow laws. Gabriel’s body is most likely in a slave burial ground that today is covered by a parking lot along Richmond’s Monument Avenue, which is lined with statues commemorating Confederate leaders such as Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson.

Barry, along with many in his community, considers this erroneous city planning negligent at best, a grave injustice at worst. “There is a Bojangles monument in one of the black neighborhoods,” he says, “but there’s nothing for the people whose backs and arms and legs were ultimately used to make those people filthy fucking rich — blacks, indentured whites, poor people, etc. I challenge people in 2009, ‘Whitey,’ just like me. How would you feel if your family member was buried below a parking lot?”

Barry turned his feelings into a song that shed light on the controversial subject. “I kept wondering if people knew the name Gabriel Prosser,” he says. He soon performed “Prosser’s Gabriel” on a local public radio station, and he was honored when Gabriel’s descendants contacted Barry and used the song and lyrics in their annual commemoration of the uprising.

“The question is: Where do we go from there? I give it a 1–2-year cap. If there isn’t a monument where Gabriel was buried, I’m going to hire a sculpture and I’m going to get a film crew, and alert the media and cement that motherfucker into the ground.” He says earnestly, “I want things to be right — to acknowledge the ills around us and praise the beauty of change.”

Though “Prosser’s Gabriel” is based in local politics and history, like many of Barry’s songs, it has a universal message. “It’s relevant to the secret histories everywhere we live,” he says. Barry points to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History school of thought, which takes a look at historical events from a point of view different than the mainstream high-school-textbook accounts.

“That’s where great stories and films and music comes from, flipping the perspective,” he says. “Step into someone else’s shoes; it makes it more interesting. I’m a firm believer in what Woodie Guthrie says: ‘You look around; there’s plenty to write about.’” Along with the positive reception he got from Gabriel’s descendants, Barry received E-mails from listeners from different parts of the world who were prompted to do research on their communities and found out some interesting facts in the process.

Barry maintains this observational, open-minded outlook wherever he goes. He describes a recent trip around the Northeast, which he (uncharacteristically) began by Amtrak.

“There’s nothing better than sitting in the dining car listening to these big swinging dicks from the financial world talking about how to manipulate their coworkers, then being in Williamsburg with guys with ironic mustaches and women with the most incredible bodies you’ve ever seen,” he says.

“Then taking the Chinatown bus down to Philly, ending up in a scummy neighborhood, and finally riding a freight train to Richmond. By the time I got there, I looked like a homeless person, and when I got off the train, no one will talk to me because they think I’m going to ask them for something. From start to finish, the trip is a mind fuck.”

No matter how far he travels, though, Barry’s heart remains in Richmond, and his mind is set on improving the world around him. “It goes back to ‘Prosser’s Gabriel’ — the way people treat one another,” he says. “It became a thought, and for me, it came out in a song.”

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Om: Spiritual Work and Colossal Vibrations

When Om’s Al Cisneros isn’t playing bass guitar, he’s been known to teach chess. “They are complementary to each other and say the same thing in my heart,” he says. “They uncover the same things to me. In a lot of ways, practicing one is practicing the other. I’ve never really thought about it before, but I don’t usually pick up the bass until I have something, the same way you wouldn’t pick up a chess piece until you have a move.”

Cisneros has been a prominent figure in underground metal for years, but his gentle, unassuming demeanor is a far cry from what many would expect from a musician associated with what is typified as an aggressive, macho genre.

Om, the intense, hypnotic bass-and-drum duo that he founded with drummer Chris Haikus in 2003, has been reinventing the way that many people perceive heavy music. Its songs are cerebral but accessible, spiritual but unreligious. Om’s music could be used to excite the apathetic as much as it could serve as a meditative soundtrack for the hyperactive.

In a live setting, Om takes on another dimension. The walls rattle under the colossal vibrations from Cisneros’ bass cabinets, fuelled by his carefully selected custom amps; the huge, warm sounds that come out of them seem to enter the body, resulting in a feel that is like being caught in the eye of a storm.

“I feel really safe sometimes, if that’s the right word, when the speakers [fuzz out] like that,” Cisneros says. “Descriptions [of music] can be stereotypes. It’s very peaceful.”

When Haikus amicably left the band in the spring of 2008, Cisneros sought out Grails drummer and Holy Sons mastermind Emil Amos to take his place. Things have been good ever since, as the title of Om’s fourth studio album and first featuring Amos on drums, God is Good (Drag City), suggests.

“It’s just true,” Cisneros says of the title, which, true to form, decontextualizes religious iconography from its traditional meanings. “We’re in the journey right now, and we wanted to sing about it. It’s the word symbol we came up with. You can’t explain it. The more you try with words, the more you try to explain what it means.” As each word passes, Cisneros sounds vaguely frustrated at trying to communicate such esoteric thoughts out loud. “You can feel it,” he continues. “Everyone can feel it.”

Amos is more direct about the title. “It makes me think of a really hellish LSD trip,” he says, “where at the end of the whole thing, you meet this sobbing resolution that things actually are okay—the fact that you know, in some Jungian sense or in a Carl Sagan book, [that] the creation of this universe came from the first moment of good winning over evil.”

Cisneros began exploring the depths of heavy metal as a teenager in the late ’80s, when he and Haikus formed punk/metal hybrid Asbestosdeath. The band added second guitarist Matt Pike (now guitarist/frontman of High on Fire) and by the early 1990s morphed into Sleep—a riff-brandishing psychedelic power trio, a band that owed more to the bluesy grooves of Black Sabbath and Pentagram yet whose sound was filtered through a set of musicians that had also been exposed to Bay Area hardcore and thrash.

“We all dropped out of high school—I think every one of us,” Cisneros recalls. “We were all having hard times, and we were friends through music.” For the young friends, music became more than just a hobby. “[It was] our lifeline,” he corrects. “I wouldn’t have made it through those times without it.”

Sleep grew a following, and with the release of its second album, Sleep’s Holy Mountain, many believed that it had the potential to cross into the mainstream. The band signed with London Records to release its third album, tentatively titled Dopesmoker, a single, hour-long epic song that had taken the band years to perfect.

The label, rather than appreciating what it had, saw it as “noncommercial” and toyed with remixing it and dividing the song into pieces. The band was horrified and eventually broke up under the strain, but the album later surfaced as the segmented Jerusalem on Rise Above Records, and eventually, an unabridged version of Dopesmoker was released on Tee Pee.

Sleep left a legacy not only because of its primal, heavy sounds that have influenced others, but also because of its unwavering commitment to its vision of its art, no matter what the stakes.

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Akimbo: Historical Sharks

“We got to carry the cake on stage,” boasts Akimbo drummer Nat Damm. The Seattle three-piece is making its way home through a mountainous stretch of highway after playing Jello Biafra’s fiftieth birthday party in San Francisco. Although a few generations younger than the punk legend, Akimbo has reached a milestone of its own: its tenth anniversary as a band.

In that time, the group has become known for its hybrid of hardcore, metal, and rock’n’roll, a heavy combination carrying the torch of luminaries such as the Jesus Lizard, Unsane, and the Melvins. After three albums, beginning with Harshing Your Mellow (Dopamine/Seventh Rule) in 2001, Akimbo signed to Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles and released Forging Steel and Laying Stone in January 2006 before immediately heading back into the studio. Armed with then-new guitarist Aaron Walters and recording engineer/Lords’ front man Chris Owens, Akimbo came out victorious with not one, but two, stellar full-lengths.

Damm calls the double recording session “an awesome moment for us,” but that’s putting it mildly. When Navigating the Bronze (Alternative Tentacles) was released in August 2007, it was arguably the group’s best and heaviest album to date. The second record (Akimbo’s sixth altogether), Jersey Shores, wouldn’t arrive until over a year later, via Neurot Records.

Jersey Shores is a concept record based of a real-life horror story. “The concept,” explains the band via its website, “is that ‘nature will fuck you up.’ The theme is ‘sharks, in particular, will totally fuck you up.’” The album is rooted in the events surrounding a series of unprovoked shark attacks that occurred along the New Jersey coastline in the summer of 1916. The shark (or sharks — no one knows for sure) claimed the lives of four people and severely maimed a fifth. In their time, the attacks caused unparalleled mass hysteria. Later on, they provided the inspiration for Jaws.

Akimbo bassist/singer Jon Weisnewski’s taste for mythological references and storytelling had long been apparent in the band’s catalog, evidenced by songs like Elephantine’s “Bitten from the Thigh of Zeus” and Navigating’s “Wizard van Wizard.” It is unsurprising that he had been toying with the idea of a concept album for a long time.

“When we were writing the music, I was naturally playing with thematic elements. It seemed like some good material to base a concept record around. I’ve always been like a little kid. You know how kids get into dinosaurs and shit? I was reading a book called Twelve Days of Terror by Richard Fernicola (the full title is Twelve Days of Terror: A Definitive Investigation of the 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks), and it kind of blew me away.”

Starting out with a few scenes and ideas, he recalls, “Once I really started writing Jersey Shores, I had it all in my head, and it was just a matter of figuring out the kinks.” Weisnewski centered the lyrics on what he considered to be the most profound moment in the story. During the third and final shark attack, a child named Lester Stillwell was attacked and killed, along with his would-be rescuer. Another boy was bitten upstream just minutes later. When word got out, all hell broke loose.

Music based on shark attacks must be inherently dramatic, but much of the tension found on Jersey Shores derives from the intense reaction of the public, heightened by a media circus in the wake of the attacks. Weisnewski points out, “You have to keep in mind that there was nothing about marine biology. Nobody knew about ocean creatures. You know that scene in Jaws when they go out searching for the shark? The same thing happened there. They were dynamiting the water. I found these crazy photos of carcasses upon carcasses of sharks. It was also during World War I, and people wondered if the sharks were some sort of secret weapon from the Germans.”

In six tracks, clocking in at forty-eight minutes, Akimbo paints descriptive images despite Weisnewski’s occasionally indecipherable (but awesome) screams. It is easy to follow the story as guitar and bass riffs ebb and flow like ocean tides, and scenes seamlessly run from one to the next. “Matawan,” named for the small, working town where Stillwell was killed, sets the story in motion. All is calm, but a sense of uneasiness becomes more and more pervasive. Stories of the first two victims circulate (“Bruder Vansant”). Tension has already mounted by the time the town suffers its own casualties and people begin to take matters into their own hands.

The plodding bass line on “Rogue” is reminiscent of a heartbeat ringing in the ears of someone who is scared out of his or her mind. Twelve-minute instrumental closer “Jersey Shores” revisits earlier themes and sees a return to daily life, but following the attacks’ bloody aftermath, the sound of rolling waves hardly feels tranquil.

The story of the New Jersey shark attacks may be nearly one hundred years old, but the sensationalistic media coverage and resultant public outcry surrounding such a tragic event sounds eerily familiar. Damm says that the album isn’t a comment on anything happening in the current world, but he admits, “There are definitely parallels, like with color coding for terrorism levels. But we don’t really mix politics with the band. It’s not something that has interested us.”

Even more impressive than successfully conquering a hardcore concept album is the fact that Akimbo somehow managed to not play it for anyone outside its circle in the last year. If you’ve ever killed a man in cold blood and need to get the guilt off your chest, tell these guys; they obviously know how to keep a secret. The band will finally debut Jersey Shores live in its entirety this September, and its members can’t wait. Weisnewski says that he is particularly proud of the album. “For me personally, it’s a really exciting record,” he says. “I have a lot of attachment to it. Every time I play it at practice, it’s an experience. I’m excited.”

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