Sunday, October 02, 2005
[wrote this for Mojo earlier this year. the trip was a blast, we got to hang out at Dave's amazing studio, which was a bit of a headfuck for me as it was designed after the blueprints for Abba's Polar Studios in Sweden, where I first met Turbonegro a couple of years before. Dave's studio was awesome, as was Dave. he's called the 'nicest guy in rock' for a very good reason. as a teenaged Nirvana obsessive, interviewing Grohl was a Big Deal.]
When Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones recently visited his friend Dave Grohl’s newly-completed 606 Studios, out in the wastes of Northridge, California, he was struck by the most peculiar sense of deja vu. With a budget of $750,000, Grohl modelled the luxurious wood-panelled rock’n’roll playhouse after Polar Studios, the Abba-owned facilities in Stockholm where Zeppelin recorded their swansong In Through The Out Door in the winter of 1978.
Furnished with state-of-the-art studio equipment and all the high-end entertainment technology a resting musician could desire, 606 serves as HQ for the big Rock’n’Roll Show-business operation Grohl’s Foo Fighters swiftly became, after the release of their 1995 eponymous debut album. But it also betrays a human touch, that of Grohl himself, the incurable music obsessive. “I’m embarrassed when people ask me about my interests outside of music,” he laughs, later, “Because I have none.” Fittingly, the walls are crammed with gold and platinum disks awarded to Foo Fighters and Nirvana, and Grohl’s prodigious session work with buddies like Queens Of The Stoneage, Nine Inch Nails and Killing Joke. They hang alongside framed iconic images of The Who, Led Zeppelin, and Nirvana themselves (sitting with a fitting dignity alongside such canonical legends). The sofas cradle cushions fashioned from Dave’s old Breeders and Black Sabbath tee-shirts (the work of his still-doting mother), while a poster for the Motley Crue reunion tour gazes down upon the mixing desk, vandalised so it’s tagline reads “The band you hoped [substituted for “thought”] you’d never see live again”.
The first album to be completed at 606 is Foo Fighters’ fifth album, In Your Honor; indeed, finishing touches to a last-minute addition song on the album are being administered as we chat to Dave, in 606’s control room. An ambitious double set, divided into one disk electric, one disk acoustic, In Your Honor explores the dichotomy at the heart of Grohl’s music, between the hammering, relentless riffage of the first disk, and the gentler, more melody-driven material of the second. The ideas for the electric set came so fast and so plentifully that Grohl is considering offering them to aspiring rock bands via a website he‘s envisaged, called ‘www.spareriffs.com’; the second album was originally planned as a solo, and includes a beguiling slice of faux-bossanova, accompanied by one Nora Jones (‘Virginia Moon’), and a reworking of ‘Friend Of A Friend’, a song Grohl wrote fifteen years ago, just after he joined Nirvana. Caught between the extremes of Grunge’s vaunted quiet/loud dynamic, Grohl seems to thrive on the contrasts, as you might expect from a man who survived the journey from hardcore’s gritty heartlands to the surreality of rock’n’roll superstardom mostly intact.
I have it on authority that you have John Bonham’s runic symbols from Led Zeppelin IV tattooed in various places about your body…
Well, I didn’t want to get a tattoo of Tweety Pie smoking a joint. [laughs] When I was fifteen or sixteen, my friend got one of the first CD players, and we listened to Houses Of The Holy a thousand fuckin’ times, listening close for the squeak in the bass drum pedal! I was just amazed by Bonham’s sense of feel. He’s still the best rock drummer in the world, no one can touch him. He was such an inspiration. Before that, when I was twelve or thirteen, I gave myself a Black Flag tattoo, prison style, with a needle and pen ink. [Reveals three puny, faded green bars on his left forearm]
There’s only three bars there. The Black Flag logo has four bars.
Thirteen is young for your first tattoo; were you a prodigious concert-goer as well?
My parents took me to the Ohio State Fair when I was 2 years old, in 1971; the Jackson 5 performed, but I don’t remember anything about it. [laughs] I didn’t grow up going to ‘rock concerts’. I saw [Chicago post-punk quartet] Naked Raygun back in 1982, at the Cubby Bear in Chicago. I was 13. I loved the intimacy of it; I talked to the singer and I jumped on someone’s head and I felt completely at ease with the band and the audience. It was just a bunch of people having a good time. That’s where my perspective on rock comes from.
The first time I went to a ‘big’ concert was the ‘Monsters Of Rock’ in 1987, at a stadium in DC: Kingdom Come, Metallica, Dokken, Scorpions, and Van Halen. After five years of going to see Bad Brains, MDC and Slayer at smaller club gigs, seeing this stadium gig and standing far enough from the stage that it was taking four seconds for the sound of the snare drum to hit me made no sense at all.
You always loved drums, then?
I remember being inspired by Edgar Winter’s ‘Frankenstein’. Up until that point I would just listen to whatever my parents or my sister were listening to, the West Side Story soundtrack, Carly Simon, and the Beatles. But when I heard ‘Frankenstein’, I thought, wow, everything about this song stands out, the riffs, the keyboards, and particularly the drums.
That summer, one of my cousins gave me Rush’s 2112, and I don’t know how, but I could tell what each individual piece of the drum kit was doing; I knew which sound was the hi-hat, which sound was the ride cymbal, and so on. I learned about drums by setting my pillows up on my bed and on the floor, and beating along on them with these big fucking marching sticks I stole from a friend. The house I grew up in is really small, and I couldn’t afford a drum set until I was seventeen - I’d wait until the drummer in my band went home after practice and play on his kit.
Did you ever sense a conflict in loving both old skool rock and punk?
My first punk-rock moment was going to see the AC/DC movie, Let There Be Rock. It was the first time I’d felt that energy, like I just wanna fuckin’ break something, I’m so excited that I’m losing my mind! It was dirty and sweaty, fuckin’ beautiful. I liked the more aggressive side of things. So hardcore and punk-rock and thrash metal were like a dream come true, pushing that energy to an extreme. The thing I didn’t like about a lot of rock music was the superhuman pretension - at an early age I was suspicious of it, cynical. I had a Kiss poster, but I didn’t like their music, I liked them as comic-book characters. But I also had an AC/DC poster, Malcolm Young wearing jeans and a tee shirt, hasn’t taken a shower all week, drunk and just fuckin’ playing music for the sake of playing music. I thought, I wanna be that guy.
You grew up in Northern Virginia, spitting distance from Washington DC. Did you get to experience DC’s legendary hardcore scene, bands like Bad Brains and Minor Threat?
When I discovered punk-rock, the only punk rockers I’d seen were on Quincy [1970s TV series featuring Jack Klugman’s titular Pathologist, and a lot of genuine punk extras]. The punk-rock kids out here in LA realised they could get extra work for money, fuckin’ went for it, like Pat Smear [former Germs/Nirvana/Foo Fighters guitarist]. When I found out that hardcore bands was ‘hatched’ right in my backyard, I flipped out. And it took me a while to work out how to find that scene, because it wasn’t in nightclubs, it was in community centres and Knights Of Columbus halls.
Most of the ‘scene’ came from DC and Maryland, not from Virginia, which was right there on the Mason/Dixon line. Though I wasn’t raised a complete redneck, I grew up with duck-hunting and pick-up trucks. The DC hardcore scene was almost impenetrable - it was hard to get into that scene as an outsider. It took me about a year before I finally found it. And then I couldn’t get out of it.
After playing in a number of smaller punk-rock bands, you joined DC hardcore legends Scream in the mid-eighties…
I first saw them was in ‘83; I was still a kid, and they were so fuckin good. And when I discovered they were from Virginia they became my heroes. I walked into our local music store one day to buy some drumsticks, and on the bulletin board it said ‘Scream: Looking for drummer’. I called them up, lied about my age (I was seventeen), and Franz [Stahl, guitarist] reluctantly invited me to meet him at a basement underneath a head shop in Virginia. He was waiting there with his little practice amp set up. He says, okay, you wanna play some covers, some Zeppelin or AC/DC? And I said, no, let’s play some Scream. And we ran through the guys’ whole fuckin catalogue, note for note, front to back. He was really surprised, and they asked me to join.
And I freaked out. I didn’t know if it was time for me to give up High School and do what I really wanted to do or not. But I saw Scream play about a month later and realised, I had to be in the band. And I dropped out of High School, because I now had a tour coming up in two months of the South East, then we were doing Europe in the Fall. I thought, I’ve never travelled further than Ohio.
So you joined what Michael Azzerad described as the Hardcore Underground Railroad.
I fell in love with that scene because it was such a strong community: all fanzines and tape-trading and independent booking agents, stuffing your own sleeves, making your own singles, screening your own tee shirts, stuffing your equipment in a van and sleeping on people’s floors. The motive was so pure. I didn’t even care if I ate, I just wanted to play. It was such a beautiful thing, like living in a commune.
But Scream had had a rough ride. We’d never come home with any money, but while we were on tour, we’d get somewhere to sleep, people would feed us, we’d maybe get a couple of beers at every show. And that was fine, it was enough. But then people would quit because they couldn’t take it anymore, some people started getting fucked up on drugs. I started thinking working at the Furniture Warehouse wasn’t so bad; you can only eat so much Taco Bell.
We hit Los Angeles on our last tour in 1990, and our bass-player quit, so we ended up staying with the guitarist’s sister in Laurel Canyon. She lived with two mud wrestlers at the Hotel Tropicana, so we were surrounded by beautiful girls, we could drink for free at the Tropicana… It was terrible [laughs]. Because we didn’t have the band; if we’d had the music, it would have been heaven.
The Melvins came to town, so I hooked up with my friend Buzz Osborne who said, have you ever heard of Nirvana? Because those guys saw you play in San Francisco, and they’re looking for a drummer, and they were real impressed with your drumming, call them.
We talked about music, we loved everything from Neil Young to Public Enemy, from Black Flag to Black Sabbath. Right off the bat, it seemed pretty compatible. So I went out to the record store and bought a copy of Bleach, and played it ten times and went to U-Haul and bought a big fucking cardboard box. I dismantled my drum kit and telescoped them into a shell, threw my duffle bag in it and duct taped it up, and just flew up to Seattle.
When I showed up there with my one box, nothing else, I was greeted by Chris and Kurt. I really only knew them from the cover of Bleach, and they looked like these dirty fuckin’ biker children. I didn’t expect them to be as sweet as they were; Chris and Kurt were both the sweetest people in the world, they wouldn’t hurt a fly. We jumped into their old van, went up to Tacoma, to Chris’s house, and I started living there.
You were writing and recording music of your own at this point… You released the ‘Pocketwatch’ cassette with Barrett Jones on Simple Machines, in 1992, and one of those songs, ‘Friend Of A Friend’, appears, reworked, on the new album.
I’d written songs before, for Scream, and in my friend’s basement on a four-track, but that was the first time I’d written something that was so naked. I wrote that song when I first moved up with Nirvana. After living with Chris in Tacoma for a month and a half, with Chris, I moved down to Olympia with Kurt. We lived in this tiny apartment that was just an absolute fucking dumpster, and I was on a sleeping schedule where I would go to sleep about 6.30 in the morning, and wake up maybe around 4.30 in the afternoon, just as the sun was going down.
We were doing a lot of rehearsing in this barn out in Tacoma, and we had no television. It was just a small stack of albums and a four track, cigarette butts and corn-dog sticks everywhere; my home was the couch, which was about four and a half feet long, and I’m six feet tall - it was just a fuckin’ nightmare. I wrote the song one night and recorded it while Kurt was sleeping. I was just writing about these people I’d just met, myself included, because I had a lot of time to sit around and think.
Was there a single moment when the mania that surrounded Nirvana, following the success of Nevermind, started to get out of control?
It wasn’t until I came home and had a Gold Record and we were on Saturday Night Live that I realised, okay, now this is fuckin’ crazy. But it still seemed somewhat natural at that point, because we weren’t playing stadiums, we were still playing places that held 2000 people. It hadn’t gotten to that Monsters Of Rock, four-seconds-before-the-snare-hits-the-audience level yet.
The thing I started to notice was, people were starting to pull. People would pull you to an interview, or pull you into the dressing room, and people would push you onstage. And that’s when I thought, okay, this is getting a little weird. There were times where I’d excuse myself from an interview to have a piss, and have an extreme anxiety attack, like, why am I so stressed, so nervous? I was really happy, I didn’t feel down or depressed, I felt elated. But I was pretty overwhelmed. And if you think about it, I was only in that band for three and a half years, so everything happened over such a short period of time. A lot of its kind of a blur.
You were three kids from the underground punk scene; you were hardly prepared for what followed…
I think that’s a cop-out. Anyone could handle what I do, it’s a fucking luxury. I never didn’t want it. I just never expected it. We never had that world domination career ambition, because our kind of music made it impossible that we could be the biggest band in the world. People get fucked up when they have that insane ambition. If music’s not enough, not its own reward, don’t do it. When I worked at Furniture Warehouse and only played music at the weekends, that was my vacation; those weekends meant so much to me. And I still have that feeling.
I‘ve heard stories of drunken Queen-themed Karaoke parties and other shenanigans on the Nirvana tour bus during this era, which contrary to the reputation for misery Nirvana gained after the tragic fact.
People have this idea that the band travelled with a black cloud following us everywhere we went, and it’s absolutely not true. The memories that I revisit are great; we had so many fucking good times, good laughs. A lot of it was dangerous, a lot of it was fucking dark. But not all of it. The way the whole thing ended leaves everyone with a little bit of the black cloud, but honestly, it was so much fun.
You shied away from music, immediately after Kurt’s death.
How can I explain it? If you have someone that’s close to you, a family member or someone that you love, and they disappear or pass away… Imagine walking into their bedroom full of things every day. That’s exactly how playing music felt to me, because that was my whole world. It was difficult to listen to music, whether it was Ry Cooder’s soundtrack to Paris, Texas, or Ride The Lightning. I had to disconnect. And I couldn’t imagine getting up there and playing the drums with someone, and not thinking about Nirvana. I think about Nirvana every time I sit up to play the drums.
You received a postcard from Seven Year Bitch, who’d just lost their guitarist Stefanie Sargent to heroin, that read “We know what you are going through. The desire for music is gone now, but it will return. Don’t worry.” What followed next?
I worked with Mike Watt, for his solo album, Ball-Hog or Tugboat? He’s so inspirational; he’s a ‘lifer’, he does it because he loves it, and he’ll never stop. Then Tom Petty called and asked me to join the Heartbreakers for their SNL appearance. That guy’s one of America’s greatest song-writers. Within two days I felt like a member of that band. They were the sweetest, most welcoming people I’d ever met in my life. And we sounded good. I just did that one performance, played two songs, but it was fuckin’ great. I never asked Tom why he chose me; I think he said something about his teenage daughter being a Nirvana fan and making him do it.
Was this the first example of Dave Grohl, the Hardest Working Man In Showbusiness? Drumming for Killing Joke, QOTSA, Garbage, Cat Power and Nine Inch Nails; your own all-star Probot project…
It seems like after that, the ball started rolling, and it hasn’t stopped ever since. And that was eleven years ago. There’s nothing I’d rather do. Imagine, when a friend of yours who’s in one of the coolest bands calls you up and asks if you want to be on the new record. What, are you gonna say no?
Is there anyone you’re still itching to play with? Mojo could hook you up…
The next project that I’m trying to initiate involves me on drums, Josh Homme on guitar, and John Paul Jones playing bass. That’s the next album. That wouldn’t suck.
Back when you were working on the first, self-titled record, did you have even an inkling of the success Foo Fighters would achieve over the next decade?
Honestly, that album just came from melodies and demos that I’d recorded on an 8 track in my house, which I’d been doing since Nirvana had been a band. A lot of those songs were written while I was still in Nirvana, or just before Nirvana. The idea wasn’t to form a new band and start over; it was to go down to the studio, down the road, and book six days, which is the most time I’d ever spent recording music of my own. To me it seemed so professional. I wanted to start a label on my own, release the album with no names on it, no photos, call it ‘Foo Fighters’ so people thought it was a band, kinda like Stewart Copeland did with the Klark Kent record. The intention was to make music, and knowing I was still in the shadow of this thing that was Nirvana, in order for people to be objective, it had to be completely anonymous. That was the original idea.
Now, of course, Foo Fighters are a ‘proper’ rock band, one of the world’s biggest, and you can do pretty much whatever you wish. Is there anything left for Dave Grohl to achieve?
Every album opens the door to whatever happens next. Every record we’ve made I always imagined being the last. I can’t imagine being any more blessed than I already am. But, for once in my life, I’ve made a record I don’t want to be the last. Whether it’s the sheer volume of music we‘ve recorded, or exploring those two dynamics to their extremes, its opening doors I can see through for ten more years. And that’s never happened.
Did last year’s With The Lights Out box set mark the end of the Nirvana legacy?
That box set was pretty full; I think there’s maybe some demo tapes hanging around from Kurt’s house that we haven’t heard. But there aren’t many Nirvana out-takes, we’d go into the studio with twelve songs, record them, and that would be the record. But I’m sure they’ll find something to dredge up and slap on a disk somehow…
When you think about Nirvana now, what’s your take on the band and what you experienced?
To me, to this day, when I think of Nirvana, it doesn’t seem that different to me to Scream, or Dain Bramage, or Freakbaby or any of the other bands I was in as a kid. Some of them might get platinum albums, some of them might work at a Furniture Warehouse on the weekend, but they‘re just bands, thay‘re just people. Do I imagine the Pope is an angel sent from heaven? No, he’s just a human being. Do I imagine Jimmy Page spawned from a jackal in Egypt? No, he’s just a great guy, a human being, and he got to play music. It’s hard for me to think of things in terms of cultural relevance, because I don’t have that perspective on it. It’s hard to be that objective, when you were in the band. Honestly, it was just a band.
[Laughs] Admittedly, it’s hard for me to accept that Led Zeppelin were ‘just a band’. But I can say it about Nirvana.
(c) Stevie Chick 2005
Thursday, September 22, 2005
[have been struggling to write my definitive piece on Madlib and his music, a quest begun for the first issue of Loose Lips Sink Ships, four pages strung together from a five minute photo shoot and a ten minute garbled phone interview. Spring of this year, 'Lib came over to the UK to promote his second Quasimoto album, The Further Adventures Of Lord Quas, and I got to meet him in person. i still don't feel i've quite done his trippy swarm of ideas justice yet, but this piece for Plan B was a genuine attempt...]
In Jeff Jank’s loopy, cut’n’paste mind, Quasimoto is a Kool Aid-red space-alien with pointy ears like a squirrel, a big-assed snout halfway between a hippo and a pig, a doobie perma-glued to his sneering lip, his eyes heavy-liddedly gazing at the ass that passes his brownstone palace of paranoia. Across Jank’s sleeve artwork of Quasimoto’s two albums to date, 2000’s The Unseen and this year’s The Further Adventures Of Lord Quas, the luminous blob (at different points red, snot-green and ice-blue) nonchalantly tosses demo tapes out the window of a speeding motorcar, his victim tied helplessly between the fins on the trunk; sprays graffiti on a wall while dressed like a member of Run DMC; split’s a 40 and a spliff with his producer Madlib in the back of a grotty taxi-cab; stabs an enemy in the spine with a trident after bashing his face n with a brick and/or hammer; and stares up the skirt of a young girl, gazing blankly at her white-pantied undercarriage.
You’ve got to forgive Jank; Quasimoto’s music stirs up such visions, a rich and shimmering mess of twisted samples and tweaked verses that pieces together a vile and virulently alive caricature of the mean streets of America. Through Quasimoto’s verses stroll a menagerie of the forgotten, winos and street people, whores and pimps, criminals and their victims. Fringed and laced with dope-paranoia, it’s a colourful and profane nightmare, all-consuming and overwhelming, hilarious and terrifying, bleak and strangely affectionate.
Its like plugging into the lurid, neon-toned world of Corky McCoy, the illustrator whose psychedelic street paintings housed Miles Davis’s ‘On The Corner’ albums, and who helped translate Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert character for Saturday Morning Cartoons - and wouldn’t Quas make a fine subject for a show on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim strand, in the vein of Aqua Teen Hunger Force or the masterful Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law? Like McCoy’s paintings, Quasimoto’s music bleeds with a sense of acidic heightened reality, Quas twisting his gritty world into comical shapes for his own jaded, morally-blank entertainment.
The Unseen opened with ‘Welcome To Violence’, a 49 second skit stolen from some obscure spoken-word album, setting the tone for the album, preaching menacingly of the evils of sex and violence. Promo copies for The Further Adventures opened with this exact same track in its entirety (it’s cut short for the official release), which this writer merely ascribed to producer Madlib’s legendarily off-kilter creativity; its message still holds true for the latter album, which similar inspects the grime underneath its guilty fingernails with an obscene and infectious relish. But this is no sleazy faux-gangsta thrill-by-proxy trip; there’s ugly sex and uglier violence in Quasimoto’s world, because that’s the way it is. Batman had his Gotham, Homer Simpson has his beloved Springfield, and Quasimoto has the swarming mess of sin and avarice he lives in.
What they also have in common is, every single one of them is a fictional character.
Deep in Madlib’s lair, The New Loopdigga’s Hideaway - a studio tucked modestly away somewhere in San Francisco - the day’s creativity has begun. Within these cramped walls, the producer - christened Otis Jackson Jr, son of an R&B singer and his main songwriter, grand-son and nephew to legendary jazz musicians - has recorded hours of music under a plethora of alter-egos. The Loopdigga. The Beat Conductor. One-man perv-jazz instrumentalists, Yesterday’s New Quintet. Jaylib (with Slum Village producer Jay Dee). Madvillain (with fellow rap psychedelicist MF Doom).
Today, however, is a Quasimoto session. Perhaps you can tell, by the clouds of weed gathering near the gloomy ceiling, or the scattered records - from treasured rarities to mysterious thrift-store acquisitions - piled next to the turntables, where ‘Lib is slamming the needle deep into the vinyl with slapdash inspiration, chipping nonsensical slivers of soul, jazz and comedy away to flavour his own concoctions. The giveaway, however, comes when ‘Lib steps up to the mic, to give voice to his most beloved creation, stink-fingered ghetto tearaway Quasimoto. His beats slowed down to quarter speed, the producer/MC delivers the lines like his lips were dragging through molasses. This is how Quasimoto gets his trademark pitch, a couple of notes higher than Eminem, like he’s still giddy after huffing on a cocktail of helium and laughing gas.
There are so many ‘Madlib’s out there, the Madlib who produces records for Lootpack, the Madilb who records as Yesterday’s New Quintet, the Madlib who pretends he’s Quasimoto… Which is the real Madlib?
“I’m Madlib The Loopdigga, I’m Madlib the Beat Conductor, I’m Madlib the asshole, if you want,” he slurs with a chuckle, chowing down on chicken in a London Nando’s during a whirlwind press trip. “I wanna be Madlib the Sleepin’ Guy right now, huh huh huh.”
Otis Jackson Jr is a tired man right now, though I know from experience he’s not the world’s greatest interview subject at the best of times. Otis spends almost every waking hour thinking up beats and tracks, toying with his turntable and writing lyrics; its just what he does. He estimates we’ve heard barely 10% of the music he’s made, and he’s similarly reluctant to offer much of himself up in interview. Not that he’s holding anything back - facts are surrendered willingly, and he demystifies what he can of his various working practices. He even swears weed isn’t as crucial to the Quasimoto sound as the albums’ constant hosannas to the herb would suggest: “It’s not important, but it’s what I like to do,” he says, “I can make music with or without weed, it’s nothing special. Back in the days it used to help, but now I’m used to weed; it doesn’t really phase me now. My mind’s so open already it doesn’t even matter.”
And the constant references to weed and its creativity-enhancing powers on the records?
“It’s just comedy. For people who are barely smoking, and the people who know what we’re talking about.”
Comedy is a key character of Quasimoto music. Not only are Quas’s various adventures mostly ludicrous and hilarious - albeit of a very Furry Freak Brothers/National Lampoon Radio Hour wit - many of the wild, vagrant voices heard on the album are excerpted from old Laff Records, comedians like Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley.
“It’s about having fun,” says ‘Lib. “A lot of people are too serious right now, things are getting’ crazy. I’m just trying to keep the fun coming, throw up a little comedy.
“I’m, like, basically toned down,” he continues, sounding for a moment like the thirty-something family man he actually is. “My shit’s not all out there like Quasimoto’s. I’m chillin’, he’s crazy. If I’m in a room full of people, I’ll probably just sit there and say nothing. Quas ain’t like that.”
Though he treads a very solitary path, Quas has some homies who ride with him. There’s MF Doom, ‘Lib’s partner in Madvillain. “Doomsday was my favourite album for a long while,” remembers ‘Lib. “I called him up, sent him some stuff. He wanted to rap over Yesterday’s New Quintet, but I told him I had another idea. He’s a cool cat. He’s complex, he’s not simple. He’s hard to explain. Our lifestyles are kinda the same, except for the stuff that doesn’t matter. We don’t even have to talk, we could work together all day and not say a word, and it will be cool.”
Quasimoto has another partner in Crhyme, a croaky voice from the dawn of Blaxploitation, yelling his wisdoms and his madness into the uncaring din like Quasimoto’s own Mudbone. Melvin Van Peebles is the godfather of rap, after his soundtrack for his pioneering and self-financed slab of Blaxploitation cinema, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Infamously, he recorded his teenaged son Mario - now a film-maker himself - losing his virginity to a prostitute and set it to music. Madlib is now working on Van Peebles’ next album.
“He’s crazy, man,” laughs ‘Lib at the thought of Van Peebles. “The first time I met him he grabbed me and told me, ‘I’m gonna kill you, motherfucker!’ He was all in my shit. He’s legendary, I like him…”
For his insane sonic creativity, for the mythos he weaves into his tangled records, and for his increasing cult status among clued-in hip-hop fans, Madlib is the genre’s own Lee Perry. It’s another alter-ego, perhaps, a comparison that he likes.
“I’m inspired by Lee Perry, read books on him, watched documentaries. He’s crazy. Legendary. I would love to be like him. I’m kinda productive like him. I don’t have a copy of everything I’ve recorded, but J Rocc of the World Famous Beat Junkies, he has a complete collection, so I’m always hitting him up to hear stuff, and he says I’m trippin’, I’m on some Lee Perry shit.”
Madlib seems most comfortable playing out these alter-egos, the hip-hop Lee Perry, the switchblade-wielding cartoon character Quasimoto, or five dues-paying jazzbo cats called Yesterday’s New Quintet. Quas is still the dominant persona, however.
“He’s mischievous, he’s badly behaved,” ponders ‘Lib. “He’s the reason I don’t have to act shit out, huh huh huh.”
Quasimoto is an archetype in the line of Stagger Lee, a figure of violent, attractive mischief. Is it more fun to be Quasimoto than Madlib?
“My girlfriend don’t like it,” he snorts. “She thinks he’s real. That’s why this is our last album together. He stole my girl.”
(c) Stevie Chick, 2005
[this piece was written for Kerrang! in February of this year. i've never really been a NIN fan, but got deep into Trent's music while researching the assignment, which i took mainly to hang out with Aaron from the Icarus Line (which ended up not happening, but i met some wonderful people out in LA, and it was lots of fun).]
Five years. It’s a long time by most people’s standards, but when such a period passes between albums by Nine Inch Nails, the turbulent electro-noir behemoth conducted by Trent Reznor, its par for an increasingly elaborate course. Those seduced by the dark, minimal fury invoked by NIN’s 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine – the sound of gothic electro savagely torn apart by malevolent noise, Reznor wielding his words like a surgeon – had to wait half a decade for it’s follow-up, The Downward Spiral.
Recorded in the same house on California’s Cielo Drive where members of Charles Manson’s ‘family’ brutally and hatefully murdered actress Sharon Tate and a number of her ‘beautiful people’ friends in August 1969, the album expanded upon Reznor’s bitter visions, a vast but personal epic that wasn’t the work of a band but, rather, an increasingly obsessive studio artist who would splice together all manner of noises to create the exact soundscape he envisaged.
A masterpiece of its genre – a masterpiece, full-stop – it was supported by a similarly-grandiose stage show he toured across the world. Once that ended, he went straight into the studio to supervise tourmate Marilyn Manson’s breakthrough album, Antichrist Superstar, initiating a chain of events that would ultimately sunder their relationship. Still, somehow, he managed to deliver NIN’s third album – the vast, troubled, majestic The Fragile – within five years, despite the fact that Reznor and his long-time production partner Alan Moulder ultimately handed a mess of sessions (featuring engineering by Steve Albini, mix-assistance from Dr Dre, and the talents of two Buddhist choirs) to legendary rawk producer Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd, Jane’s Addiction) to make sense of. Longer, grander, more elaborate than The Downward Spiral, The Fragile was followed by an equally larger (but not necessarily better) live show. And after that…
Well, it would be churlish to say, nothing. Sure, the five years that followed saw no trace of Reznor’s trademark flurry of side-project activity, the production jobs and soundtrack work that fed his legendary workaholism. But they were, perhaps, the most important five years in Reznor’s life, as he himself will intimate – a period of intense self-investigation, a psychological shelf-clearing resulting in With Teeth, an album that startles with its clarity, with its renewed vigour. A catalogue of grievances, perhaps, like all his records, but possessed with more of a will to fight back than any other Nine Inch Nails release to date.
Certainly, the man who greets us this morning, in a cavernous but unassuming photography studio deep in the wilds of California, outwardly exudes health and calm, skin tanned, muscles bulging, eyes bright and sharp. Trent Reznor has never been a man tongue-tied in the face of a journalist’s Dictaphone, but the candour and eloquence of his revelations – regarding five years of change, of relocation, of trauma, and of realisation – is startling. And he hardly hesitates to share them; within seconds of a simple opening question as to his movements over the last half-decade, he’s telling all, with nary a twitch.
The Solutions began as the tour for The Fragile wound down; the Problems began much earlier. “I reached a point in my life where I had to get my shit together, figure out that there was a human being that was being neglected,” he muses, sipping a black coffee, in an impersonal side-room. “There was a persona that had run its course. I needed to get my priorities straight, my head screwed on. Instead of always working, I took a couple of years off, just trying to figure out who I was, and working out if I wanted to keep doing this or not. I had become a terrible addict; I needed to get my shit together, figure out what had happened.
“I always thought I was pretty average when it came to drinking and everything else,” he continues, unflinchingly. “We toured The Downward Spiral a real long time, nobody had a house, we just stayed on tour. And it was great, but when the tour ended I went straight into doing the Antichrist record with Manson, and pretty soon I realised, I get fucked up a lot. Pretty much every day I get fucked up. But I’m functioning.
“I didn’t realise at the time, but that was the beginning of a pretty intense struggle; it was impacting upon my life. I was drinking, but a few drinks in me and if someone suggesting getting some cocaine, it would seem like a fantastic idea. And it still seemed like a great idea 24 hours later, picking through the grain of the carpet looking for more [laughs]. After a while I realised, I wasn’t in control. The price wasn’t just feeling bad the next day; I was starting to hate myself. That led to a path of fucking around with it, procrastinating, until I decided there was a decision to be made, which was either to get better, or to die.”
He pauses, just for a moment. “And, unexpectedly, my life’s been exponentially better since then. It was four years ago, and it’s led to a series of changes, a shake-up in the longest relationship I’ve ever had in my life, with my best friend, the manager I started off with. I realised, with my newfound sense of clarity, that we didn’t have a healthy relationship.
“And my moving from New Orleans, to California…” he explains. “I got tired of being ‘out of the loop’, I guess. I have a tendency to isolate myself. What attracted me to New Orleans was that it was like living on a different planet. You were left alone. If you enjoyed ‘leaving the planet’, too, it was a good place to be.”
The next step was a course in psychotherapy, “Because I thought, what the fuck, whatever it takes. My way sure wasn’t working. I always thought I was smart, that I could ‘lick’ anything because I’m smart enough to work anything out. It’s been a very humbling learning experience, of being right in the gutter – its one thing to talk about hitting the bottom, to flirt with it, this romantic notion of a dark side. Embracing it and really getting deep into it? I don’t ever wanna go there again. I’ve been there, and it was not good.”
For Nine Inch Nails’ artistic landscape, that ‘dark side’ has always been there. It informs Reznor’s every lyric, his flirtations with it, his panicked and disgusted recoil from it. Maybe it’s an obsession; he knows he’s drawn to it, but he can’t shake the suspicion that it stalks him, too.
“Like recording The Downward Spiral in the ‘Manson’ house,” he laughs, “We didn’t go searching for that house, it crept up on us. We chose it only because it was the best location, and when the facts came out, we just thought, well, that’s an interesting piece of weird Americana we just inhabited. I never dreamed I’d still be talking about it with journalists ten years later. When we left the house, they were tearing it down, so I had the front door shipped to my studio in New Orleans, which, out of pure-necessity, had been a funeral home ten years before. It makes for the dream press-pack, I know,” he grins wryly, “But that was never our conscious intention.”
Nevertheless, he takes great relish in relaying this next macabre chapter in the NIN storybook, further proof for Reznor that The Dark Side is pursuing him and not just the other way around.
“I recently closed my Nothing studios in New Orleans, and Alan Moulder bought the Mixing Console on which we recorded a number of projects – it’s the best desk he’s ever used,” grins Reznor. “The guy who re-assembled it at Alan’s studio made an interesting discovery, though. These huge circuit boards are usually constructed by one guy, and the guy who built this one was an obsessive/compulsive, which isn’t good in life but is apparently great if you have to wire up 96 channels of sound for a recording studio. Anyways, one day this guy goes into the woods and kills his girlfriend with a circuit board tool. And the guy who was re-assembling this desk discovered the word ‘cunt’ etched into one of the chips.”
This is the second time Reznor has uttered the word ‘cunt’ in the interview. The first is in reference to a little lyrical investigation, an idle musing on the appearance of the word ‘Love’ in two of the album’s song titles, particularly the vituperative ‘Love Is Not Enough’, and the question of whether either song was written about fleeting ex-paramour Courtney Love.
“I would never…” he snaps back. “She doesn’t bother me enough to make me write a song that has anything to do with that cunt. No.”
Even if their targets are kinda veiled, the lyrics to With Teeth – speaking with the wisdom of Reznor’s recent revelations – are prime NIN. Unlike previous albums, which were written with a concept in mind, Reznor feels With Teeth works simply as an album of “thirteen songs that are friends with each other”. There are themes, however.
“After I got clean, it felt like I’d landed on a different planet somehow. It looks the same, kinda, but everything is different,” he explains. “Learning lessons from listening to people, realising the humbling truth that I don’t know everything, and that my way isn’t necessarily the best way. The idea was for the record to start from a place of panic and fear, and gradually find a sense of acceptance. It’s a difficult journey that begins with a nightmare, the nightmare of what I was going through.
“Shortly after I got clean, 9/11 happened,” he sighs, tackling another key influence. “It feels like we’re in this weird police state now. The government isn’t telling us the truth, fear is now being pumped into our homes as a great motivator to just do what you’re told.”
This sentiment is most clearly expressed on the brutal martial force of With Teeth’s first single, ‘Bite The Hand That Feeds’. It’s as close as Reznor feels he can get to a hectoring anti-Bush track, and one he admits “Is very close to bashing people over the head with the message”. As a protest song – and as a NIN song, also – it’s fine, however, a Molotov collision of fist-pumping rhetoric and pneumatic noise.
Like so many NIN, it is the sound of sensitive souls stung into action by an all-enveloping sense of disgust. “I was and am just so filled with rage about what’s happened here,” he admits. “I was sitting in my house when 9/11 happened, my Dad called me and said, ‘Turn on your TV, we’re getting attacked!’ So I turned it on, and a couple of minutes later the second plane hit. One of my dearest friends, who’s sort of like my ‘mother’ down in New Orleans, came over and we hung out. It was weird, we didn’t know if ‘it’ was all over, what was happening.”
Reznor admits that he’s not one for being raked over the coals as to the meaning of his lyrics. However, the last five years also witnessed some of his most personal lyrics adopted as the poignant farewell of a true American legend. Of all of ‘our’ music the Man In Black Johnny Cash chose to cover for his final brace of albums for Rick Rubin (Soundgarden, Depeche Mode, Danzig?!?), ‘Hurt’ – The Downward Spiral’s closing track – was perhaps the most surprising, Cash’s leathery croak applied to the God of Electro-core’s material. But it was also the most powerful. Released as a single very shortly before Cash’s death in September 2003, accompanied by a starkly beautiful video essaying Johnny and wife June Carter Cash’s aged frailty and enduring dignity, it made for a fine parting shot from one of the 20th Century’s most potent rebels.
“When my friend Rick Rubin asked if Johnny could cover ‘Hurt’, I said yes immediately,” remembers Reznor. “Because I trust Rick and I admired Johnny a great deal. Later, when I heard the recording, I felt a little ‘invaded’, I have to admit. It was my song, one of the most personal I’ve ever written. And now it’s got this massive voice attached to it, which isn’t mine. A couple of weeks after that, I saw the video. And that’s when it all came together; I got goosebumps, I welled up with tears, and I knew it wasn’t my song anymore. And I say that, not in a jealous way, but… It happened at a time in my own life when I was rediscovering my appreciation for the power of music. I had been out of it long enough to get away from what I hated about music – the competitiveness of it, the shucking and jiving, all the bullshit. I had sort of lost sight of the music, the reason I got into it all in the first place. I wanna be a rock star and whatever, but what I really wanted to do was be in a band, make music, and try and communicate with people that way. Hearing this song come back at me, a completely different interpretation, and having it have arguably more power than my version…” He sighs, for once lost for words. “And to have it juxtaposed against someone’s life in that way. And then the fact that he passed away shortly after that…
“It was just unusual,” he continues, laughing warmly. “I come from rural Pennsylvania, and I think when the Cash version came out, it got around that I wrote it, and suddenly people there thought I’d ‘made it’. To have someone who was a great songwriter themselves cover your song – he said something about it being like something he would’ve written in the 1960s. I was like, fuck, man. The older and more jaded you get, the rarer it is you hear someone say something about you that you wanna go tell other people.”
The final set of changes in Reznor’s life would be initiated with his return to the studio for the sessions for With Teeth, and when he assembled the band to tour it.
“Straight after the last tour, I went into the studio, ostensibly to start work on the next record,” explains Reznor, a notorious workaholic. “It was a disaster, I couldn’t get my shit together at all. But I did record demos of things, almost consistently. When I got clean, I wanted to stop – to take a minute, to not feel like I’m always running for a train. I’ve never stopped working since 1988. The minute I realised I could get paid for doing this, for doing what I want to, I’ve taken advantage of that as much as I possibly could.
“But I itched to get in the studio. I wanted to see if I could even make music ‘straight’. So once I felt like I was getting a grip back on my life, I started to ease myself back into it gently, checking over the stuff I’d been working on earlier. And I found that, instead of feeling crippled, it was like I’d had three hundred blankets removed from my head, and that I could actually work much better. I felt empowered.”
The album’s speedy production was the antithesis of 1999’s The Fragile, he admits. “But The Fragile was madness! I was in the grips of addiction and was not acknowledging it. I was governed by fear, I felt I didn’t have anything to say. There aren’t many lyrics on the album, and what there are, are hidden. But I needed to make the music. So I went crazy. I’m still proud of it, but I never want to make an album like that again.”
The band behind Nine Inch Nails has changed, also. Long-time bassist and keyboard players Danny Lohner and Charlie Clouser have disappeared in the post-chemical spring-clean, the touring outfit now numbering Jeordie White (ex-Marilyn Manson) on bass, aaron north (ex-Icarus Line) on guitar, and Alessandro Cortini on keyboards. Jerome Dillon remains stalwart on the drum-stool, but features on only half of the new album; no poor reflection on Dillon’s inestimable talents, says reznor, just another avenue he’s chosen to pursue.
“I wanted someone to just pound the shit out of the drums. I felt like programmed drums were a bit tired, a little ‘done’. I thought of Dave, called him up and he was here the next day. Before I knew it, I had rough versions of the songs, with him drumming over them. Grohl instantly knew what I was looking for; he’s not some old buddy of mine, we met on tour in Australia sometime, but we clicked instantly.
“He was one of the first people to hear the new music, and it was a super kick in the ass,” he glows. “Because there’s always a critical juncture in the making of a record when you’re unsure you haven’t built your whole castle upon a turd.”
Grohl’s enthusiasms weren’t misplaced. Taut, clear-minded, vicious and compulsively funk-driven, With Teeth is the record you never thought NIN would make: an electrifyingly live-sounding rock’n’roll record that’s light on their trademark ambience, and heavy in every way imaginable. The sort of record that explains the calmly confident manner of its creator today.
That isn’t to say Reznor’s inner-turbulence has entirely subsided. He isn’t healed yet, but he is solemnly given to an ongoing process of healing, even if it takes his whole life.
“For a while I didn’t know why I was making music. I took some time out and came back to it and realised, simply, I love music. I haven’t run out of things to say, I haven’t run out of new ways to say them. When I come up with something, I can’t wait for people to hear it – I feel like I have a purpose in life. I’ve always loved music, I’ve always been good at it. I’ve been lucky. I’ve been able to make a living doing it and communicate with people that way.
“I’ve been fortunate – and I feel that way now. For a long time I had to convince myself. ‘Why am I so depressed? I have everything I ever wanted.’ I’d feel like a big pussy just saying that. But it feels like things have shifted in my life. I feel more vital, maybe. More hungry.”
The touring commitments his band are about to undertake should keep that hunger docile for another five or so years. And with that, Trent Reznor says goodbye, and smiles one last time. Big and wide. With teeth.
(c) Stevie Chick, 2005
Thursday, September 01, 2005
[This feature ran in Mojo earlier this year; writing it was a dream come true, since You're Living All Over Me has been an obsession for me since I first bought it, on scratchy second hand vinyl, back in the Summer of 1992. I had so many great stories from Lou, J and Murph, it could've been twice as long. Big thanks to Jon Fetler, John Robb and Lee Ranaldo for talking to me for this, also.]
J Mascis said later that ploughing his guitar into Lou Barlow’s bass “made a nice sound”.
The angst that fuelled their music, a volatile, subterranean swarm of influences Mascis translated into “earbleeding Country”, ultimately consumed Dinosaur Jr. Playing the Night Shift, a ratty little club inside a shopping mall in Naugatuck, Connecticut in the early Spring of 1988, their simmering passive-aggressions erupted into ineffectual violence. Years of unresolved hostility had fractured their fragile dynamic. The taciturn front-man realised he had to act.
“I kept thinking, wow, Murph’s gonna hit Lou,” remembers Mascis today. “Then I realised Murph wasn’t gonna hit Lou, that it was up to me.”
Bassist Lou Barlow was playing a single note of feedback instead of the bass-line to ‘Severed Lips’, an act of blatant sabotage. Mascis responded by swinging his guitar at Barlow, who deflected the blow with his bass and fell to the ground. After a few further glancing blows, Mascis sloped offstage; Barlow leapt onto the drum-riser, pumping fist and screaming a triumphant “Yes!”
“…Like he had won some psychic battle by making me react,” continues Mascis, distaste etched on his usually-emotionless features. “I walked offstage thinking, Jesus he’s fucked up. Whatever he was going through was too much for me to deal with.”
“I was watching the whole thing and thinking, I should just kill both of them,” sighs Emmett Jefferson ‘Patrick’ Murphy III, better known as Dinosaur’s drummer Murph, from his home in Massachusetts. “I was ready to put them in a headlock and bang their heads together. It was ridiculous.”
The dysfunction at Dinosaur’s core was legendary, their friction productive. Hardcore kids and Oi! obsessives, they cannibalised the carcass of classic rock and, like contemporaries Meat Puppets, Husker Du and Butthole Surfers, drew something fresh and strange from the melee, like fallout from the Atom Bomb that was hardcore. Their intemperate music saw melodic pastorals torn apart by autistic blasts of noise, flashes of hormonal frenzy, the product of weeks these abrasive, mismatched personalities spent cooped up together in their claustrophobic ’76 Dodge tour-van.
Their differences ran deep. Mascis was one of the few punks in Amherst, Massachusetts, a liberal college town. The schools were progressive, they wouldn’t punish students, making them discuss their anti-social behaviour in counselling sessions instead, a memory at which the legendarily withdrawn guitarist shudders.
“I picked up a copy of Sounds magazine’s Punk’s Not Dead special at a local record store, and ordered in most of the magazine’s Top 100 Punk Singles Of All Time. I loved them all, GBH, Discharge, The Exploited, Blitz… I even liked Skrewdriver. I didn’t know the politics involved, so I could just enjoy it devoid of any moral judgement. I’m sure a lot of musicians are dicks.”
He shaved off most of his hair and cut the rest to uneven lengths, a style he called “the chemotherapy”, to his mother’s dismay. Later, he would mimic Nick Cave’s Birthday Party-era haircut.
“…The ‘finger in the power-socket’ look. He’d achieve that by frying egg-whites into his hair with straightening-tongs,” laughs Dinosaur’s first manager/roadie Jon Fetler, who spun Mott The Hoople records at school dances with Mascis as a proto-Beavis and Butthead DJ duo during their High School years.
While at the record store, Mascis met 14 year old Dee Dee Ramone-lookalike Scott Helland flipping through the import punk racks, and posting a ‘Drummer Wanted’ ad on the wall, for local hardcore band Deep Wound. A week later, Mascis’s dad drove J to guitarist Lou Barlow’s house in Westfield, 45 minutes south-west of Amherst, for the audition. Mascis remembers that they had similar music tastes and, “Since Lou didn’t talk at the time, he was easy to get on with.”
Mascis hailed from rarefied Amherst. Barlow was from resolutely blue collar Westhurst, a dying factory town. These class differences would rule Dinosaur.
“The kids from Amherst were snots,” says Barlow, calling from the waiting room of his eight-months-pregnant wife Kathleen’s obstetrician in their new home Los Angeles. “I wasn’t at all jaded, I was spastic and excited, saying goofy stuff, reading fanzines. J was adept at making me feel like a fucking dweeb, cutting me dead with a one-liner.”
“He was the classic nerd, the kind who would get beat up by jocks,” replies Mascis. “I was an angry young man. If people were looking to be abused, I’d abuse them. Lou was a real victim.”
Barlow was besotted with hardcore, Minor Threat and Black Flag and their followers. “All the songs were 30 seconds long, played as fast as humanly possible, the 7”s would come with detailed lyrics sheets…” he sighs. “It matched my energy level, my anger level.”
Helland, Barlow and Mascis were joined by singer Charlie Nakajima, and the quartet played shows and released an EP, Video Prick, in the Summer of 1983. Their thrashing, super-fast punk won notices in the fanzines, but they split the following year.
“Hardcore seemed like it was over,” shrugs Mascis, who had been writing songs of his own in downtime from Deep Wound, songs that drew upon different passions: country music, Black Sabbath, the murkier regions of post-punk, and his beloved Birthday Party. “Music was one of my only interests,” he observes, though his outward lack of passion might fool you into thinking even that’s untrue.
J was coasting in college, taking courses that fed his interest in Adolf Hitler and World War II; one of his lecturers was a former SS Officer. He set about forming Dinosaur, recruiting Nakajima on vocals. To achieve the sound he could hear in his head, Mascis would play lead guitar, asking Barlow to move over to the bass. Mascis’s vacated drumstool would be taken by Murph, an old friend of J’s from High School who had played in “pseudo-Oi!” band All White Jury.
“I was a hippy punk, I loved hardcore but I listened to lots of Hendrix too; they weren’t down with that at all,” says Murph. “I smoked lots of weed, they were straight-edge. I made them feel uncomfortable, because I’d grown up in NYC, going to rock concerts and stealing my parents’ car for joyrides, doing stuff they couldn’t fathom. We had a mutual fascination: they couldn’t believe I was so wild, I couldn’t believe they never said anything.”
The band played one show with Nakijima on vocals before J quit the band. Over the next couple of days, he called up Murph and Barlow, to play together again. “I said, ‘you’re reforming the band’, but he denied it,” laughs Murph. “But he was reforming the band, only without Charlie. Charlie was pretty ‘anarchist’, he and J clashed a lot.”
J elected to split vocal duties between him and Lou. “He played me these songs, and the change in direction was obvious,” says Barlow. “These were rock songs, not blinding power-chord anthems. There was a country song. J was unafraid to reference classic-rock stuff that wasn’t ‘cool’. And he had cultivated an idiosyncratic voice, like all the great rock singers: Dylan, Lou Reed, Neil Young.”
Almost immediately, however, the conflicts that would dominate Dinosaur for the next three albums began to surface, though the band-mates themselves were initially unconcerned. “Rock bands are generally miserable people, I knew my rock’n’roll history,” laughs Lou now. “You didn’t have to get along, that was a ‘hippy’ ideal. Rock’n’roll was about a bunch of ambivalent people getting together, hating each other and playing loud, nasty, hateful music.”
Certainly, Dinosaur thrived on this tension. They began playing shows in Amherst and nearby areas, but were soon banned from most venues for their sheer, brutal volume. “I was breaking cymbals, I was hitting my drums so hard,” remembers Murph. “We were into the concept of noise pollution, of feeling the music, as much as hearing it.”
“My guitar style came from trying to recreate the experience of drumming, playing loud and getting into the dynamics, using pedals. We just kept playing, even though people hated us,” grins Mascis. “We didn’t belong to a ‘scene’, we didn’t have any fans. At Chet’s Last Call [a club near Boston Gardens] the soundman threw a bottle at me, because I was playing too loud.”
They did have one fan, however, and an influential one. Gerard Cosloy had known Mascis since before he raved about Deep Wound in his Conflict fanzine, later becoming that band’s manager. Now, he ran Homestead Records, a small indie, and offered to release Dinosaur’s first record. Despite only having played a handful of shows, the band repaired to the basement of Chris Dixon, a local hippy who mostly recorded folk and jazz on his analogue 24-track setup, but adapted his technique to Dinosaur’s hybrid metallic country. They recorded quickly; the entire sessions cost $500.
The songs on Dinosaur’s eponymous first album were wonderfully odd, misshapen, running the gamut of Mascis’s omnivorous hunger for music. ‘Repulsion’ and ‘Severed Lips’ conformed to traditional country-rock structures, but were fringed with fiery noise; within a flash, melodies would be engulfed in distortion and feedback. Elsewhere, the bare, vulnerable lyrics essayed loneliness and alienation with an eerie accuracy, Mascis howling “Why won’t you be my friend?” on ‘Qwest’, and declaring himself “Embarrassed to be alive” on ‘The Leper’, as tungsten riffs crackled underneath. “The Leper made me unembarrassed to love Black Sabbath,” said Evan Dando of Boston’s Lemonheads, later. Dinosaur’s reclamation of heavy rock’s arsenal from the scrap-heap of history would prove influential, expressing a kinship they felt with contemporaries like Arizona’s Meat Puppets, trippy country-fried desert-wanderers as of their sublime second album, and the similarly psychedelic Dream Syndicate.
“The bands coming up through the 1980s were mostly shying away from what they perceived as the ‘hippy’ mannerisms,” remembers Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth, whose Daydream Nation opus was explicitly influenced by Dinosaur’s sprawling, mutant classic-rock. “And then Dinosaur came along, combining hardcore with the most beautiful elements of 60s rock.”
Sonic Youth took Dinosaur on their first national tour, shortly after the album came out. “Back in those days, it was hard to get three sentences in a row out of J,” remembers Renaldo. “There were a lot of things bubbling under the surface between them, that none of them wanted to deal with in any way.”
“We weren’t the ‘bonding’ types we wanted to be,” adds Mascis, with considerable understatement. The confines of the tour-van exacerbated conflicts, and a dysfunctional dynamic soon slipped into place, Barlow desperately seeking some affirmation from the aloof Mascis, who would greet his band-mate’s neediness with acrid disdain. Murph, meanwhile, would goad both, chafing at the intense atmosphere.
“We were three very big egos, feeling crowded,” says Murph. “The tension was: Your Space is invading My Space.”
On one of these interminable bus trips across America, an exasperated Mascis summed up these feelings in an affecting little phrase speaking volumes of the unvoiced angst and intolerance growing within Dinosaur: “You’re Living All Over Me”.
Dinosaur recorded their second album in New York with the assistance of Sonic Youth associate Wharton Tiers. Mascis drafted Renaldo in to sing harmonies on the opening track, Little Fury Things, and experimentation was rife. You’re Living All Over Me had an even broader musical embrace than its predecessor, taking in their love of early industrial music (SPK, Throbbing Gristle), and containing various ‘avant garde’ gestures, such as the avalanches of tape distortion that swallowed up the sleepy-eyed ‘Tarpit’, or the ghostly, disturbing voices that materialise on ‘Raisins’ and ‘In A Jar’, captured illicitly by Barlow while he was working at a mental institution. More audacious still was ‘Sludgefeast’, which volleyed with autistic grace from playful folk-rock to colossal Sabbath riffage, and the closing track, ‘Poledo’, Lou’s exercise in suicidal folk and tape manipulation.
“I had started smoking weed, and everything sounded wonderful,” recalls Barlow. “I saw You’re Living All Over Me as a psychedelic rock record, and figured ‘Poledo’ would work as the bullshit freakout track, the album’s ‘Revolution #9’.”
‘Poledo’ and ‘Lose’ marked the first (and last) Barlow compositions on a Dinosaur album. The band were cast very much in Mascis’s own image (he even dictated Murph’s every drumbeat, curtailing his jazz-fusion tendencies), but was glad Barlow was finally contributing. “Getting Lou to bring songs to the table was excruciating,” he grumbles. “He was afraid of getting shot down, or that we would ruin them.”
Barlow would spend hours smoking pot on his own (Mascis was prone to migraines and didn’t even drink, Murph had been through rehab), playing back the tapes for the album, revelling in what they’d created. “I was becoming even more convinced of J’s genius and power,” he adds. “Unfortunately, I became so in awe of him, I couldn’t bring myself to play him my songs. And he had no idea, and was incapable of reaching out to me or encouraging me.”
You’re Living All Over Me would prove a peak for the band. Many of their initial ambitions had been fulfilled: they had signed to SST, home to Black Flag, Husker Du and many other spiritual kin, had appeared in Byron Coley’s ‘zine Forced Exposure, and had toured with Sonic Youth. “I used to see the same thing in Nirvana, after they broke big,” reasons Murph. “We’d given so much, played our last game, and didn’t know where to go next.”
The tour to promote the album was disastrous, trashing the fragile ceasefire of hostilities the You’re Living All Over Me sessions signalled and cutting short the lifespan of the original line-up. The van broke down on the first day, ninety minutes outside Amherst. Murph was feeling “undervalued”, and talked about punching Mascis. SST hadn’t distributed the album to stores yet, so shows were sparsely attended. Their personal habits began to grate intolerably, especially Barlow’s oral fixation, forever sucking on something. When he began nursing on the eyeball of Mascis’s Cookie Monster doll, something snapped.
“We were the first ‘Sesame Street’ generation, and J took genuine offence at Lou licking the eyeballs of this childhood relic,” observes Fetler, who road-managed the band for this tour. Fetler was no roadie, though, baffled by most of the job’s technical requirements. An English graduate and an old friend of J’s, he went along to accrue material for future writing, and soon became the band’s unofficial therapist, running interference with their antagonistic egos. His services would be called into play when the van broke down again in Idaho, enforcing a four day lockdown in a cramped hotel room.
“We had too much time on our hands, which I spent picking Lou’s life apart,” remembers Mascis, with a curious cocktail of relish and regret. “I think we pushed Lou over the edge.”
It was Murph who broke, however. “Murph was the body of that band, he felt the pain on a more fundamental level,” says Fetler. “We were arguing over who got to sleep on the floor. Murph finally broke down, and trashed the room, chucking things about, lamps, chairs…”
Fetler describes the event as “A cloud-break. Afterwards, everyone repaired to their respective corners. It was so great to be on the road, travelling America in our own van, free. And every night, all those dysfunctions and dark emotions would be channelled into this phenomenally powerful music. But after Idaho, there was a definite realisation that this couldn’t continue any longer. After the boil, you get the cool, and that’s what you can hear on Bug. The intensity has totally diminished.”
Mascis recorded the original line-up’s final album mostly on his own with engineers Paul Q Kolderie and Sean Slade (who would later work with Radiohead, Uncle Tupelo and most of Boston’s indie-rock scene); Murph and Lou were in the studio for three days, recording their tracks and then leaving. Serious new rifts had developed within this already-torturous unit.
“The lyrics, the title, all spelt out that J was unhappy,” Barlow remembers. “There was a Bug in the ointment, and the ‘bug’ was me.”
In addition to discovering drugs, Barlow had got himself a girlfriend, Kathleen Bilius, who he soon moved in with. “I finally had someone to listen to me talk,” remembers Barlow, of the relationship. “I was happy to have an emotional life outside of the band; being around J was like living in a gulag. At no point would anyone get excited about anything, and I decided I needed that in my life.”
Barlow’s withdrawal wasn’t just emotional; he had also now found an artistic outlet outside the band, via his home-recorded music, later released under the Sebadoh, Sentridoh and Folk Implosion monikers. “I felt the music of the underground had become one-dimensional, noisy, and I wanted to fashion my own response to that. I knew I was on the right track, when people said I was a ‘pussy’ for playing an acoustic guitar. I’d found my new passion: quiet was the new loud.”
“He did a total 180 degree turn when he met Kathleen,” winces Mascis. “He began talking all the time. And I decided I preferred him better when he didn’t talk at all. His priorities shifted, treating the band like a job.”
Mascis isn’t a fan of Bug. “I interviewed Ozzy Osbourne once, and he said he hated Sabotage, that it just reminded him of Sabbath recording with lawyers sat in the studio. I guess I feel the same way about Bug.”
‘Freak Scene’, a song of clouded relationship confusions ignited by J crunching hard on his superfuzz, was a semi-hit single, and the band toured Europe for the first time, alongside Sonic Youth, Rapeman and Band Of Susans. The UK music press misinterpreted the band’s social catatonia as middle class American apathy – thus the inaccurate ‘slacker’ paradigm was born – but Britain’s audiences responded to the band’s lacerating decibellage with glee, including Kevin Shields, who struck up an enduring friendship with Mascis.
John Robb, frontman for Blackpool punk legends The Membranes, helped organise the UK tour, and let the band crash at his flat in Manchester, where they filmed a promo for ‘Freak Scene’. “J just sat on the settee for three days, Lou spent hours on the phone arguing with his girlfriend,” remembers Robb. “So Murph and I would go round the corner to my mate Keith’s house, which was always a 24 Hour party. The one thing J would talk about was Oi! music. It was weird to meet a guy who looked liked Tiny Tim, but knew all the words to all the Discharge songs.”
Compared to You’re Living All Over Me, Bug was unadventurous, though it later came to define America’s burgeoning indie-rock sound. Mascis felt pressed to pad out the slender album, closing it with ‘Don’t’, a self-confessed piece of filler with Barlow bellowing “Why don’t you like me?” over a mordant swamp riff. Barlow exited the session coughing up blood.
A tour followed, dogged by Barlow’s withdrawal, the psychic warfare becoming untenable. “I recently found letters I’d written my wife on that tour,” says Barlow, “I hated them! I channelled all my ambivalence into ‘Fuck J, Fuck this lazy-assed band’. We settled into playing routine live shows.”
Soon, Barlow and Mascis stopped talking altogether. So when, in May 1989, Mascis and Murph visited Barlow’s kitchen, shortly after playing a show at the John Ausomnford Theatre in Hollywood, it was Murph who had to tell Lou he was fired.
Barlow: “Murph said, ‘we’re breaking up the band’. And then they left. J didn’t say a word.”
Mascis: “Afterwards, I kinda realised he might’ve thought we were actually splitting the band, as opposed to just kicking him out.”
Murph: “Truthfully, we were kicking Lou out the back-door. We had the tour in Australia, with Donna Dresch on bass, already planned, but we didn’t tell him.”
Barlow discovered the truth the next day, from Gerard Cosloy. He stormed off to a friend’s house, where J and Murph were hanging out.
“The next day was like torture,” recalls Mascis. “Hours of Lou screaming and yelling at us.”
“I was pretty volatile,” admits Barlow. “J just sat there and said nothing. And that was it.”
Murph describes the days that followed Barlow’s exit as “a mixture of guilt and relief, though I was unsure where we’d draw our artistic fuel, without our original dynamic.” Dinosaur Jr (as they were now called, thanks to some litigious ageing Jefferson Airpane side-project named Dinosaurs) signed to Blanco Y Negro and, with the grunge explosion, scored minor mainstream success with 1992’s Where You Been. The fuel Murph spoke of was lacking however; later Dinosaur Jr records were fine guitar-drenched country-punk, but not much more. The band fizzled out in 1997. “It just seemed like it was over now,” says Mascis, words that could have been Dinosaur lyrics.
Barlow went on to form Sebadoh with Eric Gaffney and Jason Loewenstein, their creative ethos of enthusiasm and democracy the antithesis of his Dinosaur experience. Bitterness lingered, however. Barlow sued Mascis for unpaid royalties in 1991, which hurt Mascis deeply. Shortly after he was awarded $10,000, Barlow’s lawyer seduced and was temporarily-engaged to Lou’s girlfriend Kathleen. “Instant karma,” mumurs Mascis.
“I was the only one who expressed any ‘I hate you, I want to kill you’ stuff,” reflects Lou. “He never seemed to care, which just drove me crazy.”
One final confrontation arose, when J attended a show on Sebadoh’s final tour.
“I went backstage, and he flipped out,” reels Mascis. “It was like no time had passed, he kept yelling at me, even though it was a decade after the split. I think he was on drugs; his mom and dad were there too, and they kept asking me, ‘J, what’s going on?’ [laughs]”
Relations are more cordial now; Barlow joined Mascis and his Stooges covers band onstage for ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ in London in 2003, and, at a benefit for an Autism charity Lou’s mother runs, Deep Wound reformed for a run-through of Video Prick last Summer. There are also rumblings of a reunion tour this summer, though Mascis glumly quips, “I don’t know what good it would do.”
If it raises the profile of Dinosaur’s treasured early records, remastered and re-released this Spring, that would be enough.
“I remember Kim Gordon saying that You’re Living All Over Me could’ve gone huge like Nevermind if the production was a little cleaner,” muses Barlow. “People would go buy the exact same equipment J used, the same amps and pedals. He embraced the Marshall Stack as something that could be expressive, not some bludgeoning Heavy Metal crap. I was reading some crappy Rolling Stone 100 Greatest Guitarists Ever list a while back; Kurt Cobain was in there, Kevin Shields, even Frank fuckin’ Black, but not J. And he was so fucking influential. He was the progenitor of that style.”
(c) Stevie Chick 2005
Friday, August 26, 2005
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
Monday, August 22, 2005
Saturday, August 20, 2005
Monday, August 15, 2005
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Anyways, in lieu of writing, here's a photo that captures some of life's greatest treasures, not least cats, flowers, music, trinket boxes and Snoopy...
Tuesday, March 22, 2005
A seedy bar in
"What's a beautiful woman like you doing in a place like this?"
"Beat it, jerk!"
"Now, don't sugar coat it," he slimes, "Just what is it you're trying to say?"
"Oh, grow up!"
"You're falling in love with me!" he slurs.
"I've no time for this nonsense," she yells, as a needle scratches across the record and brings this little vignette to a close. This wasn't a scene out of film noir, but 'Barhopper', a track from 24-year old Canadian turntablist Kid Koala's remarkable debut LP, Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. A blizzard of wonky hip-hop and peculiar little narratives stitched together with the maverick humour of a post-Public Enemy George Clinton, the album is the avant-scratch negative of Fatboy Slim's beery big beat.
We are talking inside the soundproofed studio of sound-collagist legends Coldcut, within the artfully cluttered offices of their Ninjatune label, which is releasing Koala's LP. The room is icy cold, the elfin Koala (born Eric Yick-Kung in Vancouver, now resident of
"Back in 1988, when I was in High School, I heard some records that totally changed my life," he remembers. "Coldcut's 'What's That Noise' , De La Soul's '3 Feet High And Rising', and Public Enemy's 'It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back'. When I heard those records I thought, 'Woah! I have never, ever heard anything like that! How did they make those noises?'"
With professional DJ equipment something of a rarity in late-80s
An after-school paper delivery job got Eric the cash to finally buy his own system, and he eventually moved to
The track 'Nerdball' on the album features a cut-up voice, saying "We're nothing but the nerds they say we are". A wry comment on the stereotypical DJ, perhaps?
"We are nerds in a way," reasons the soft-spoken, gently charismatic DJ. "I was never any good at basketball or anything, my parents forced me to take piano lessons, so I guess it was almost inevitable. We're all quite fanatical, we've all got our own little quirks. There's DJ Shadow's millions of records; Cut Chemist, with his crazy 7" collection; A-Track in his basement, no sunlight, inventing some crazy scratch that'd take me three years to learn; there's me and my notebooks..."
Kid Koala's notebooks are legendary, equal parts catalogue and sketchbook (Koala draws comic strips to relax; Carpel Tunnel Syndrome comes complete with an accompanying, Koala-drawn comic book). Numbering eight volumes and counting, Koala's notebooks enable him to reference and cross-reference any interesting noises or samples he can lift off the record at a later date. "I buy lots of records on the road," he explains, "Play them on my portable record player, and note anything worth using. That's how we pieced together 'Barhopper', went into the studio with a list of men's come-ons, and a list of women's retorts, and matched them together. It was a riot putting it together!"
The inspiration for this cornerstone track came from shows Koala has played in such seedy dives, with his side-project band, Bullfrog (indeed, Bullfrog recorded music featured on Carpel Tunnel Syndrome). "The crowd isn't necessarily there for the music, heheheheh. I've had no actual experience of barhopping myself, but I am around that meat-market scene a lot, perhaps too much. It really is quite entertaining for me to watch, some of those guys realy are quite, um, goal-orientated... Tongues hanging out, all that..."
And what is Koala's goal, exactly? "I like nothing better than to take a record with some chickens on it," he admits, "And speed it up and make 'em go all operatic, or slow it down and make it sound like they're about to explode, heheheheh!"
Carpel Tunnel Syndrome's release brings Koala's career full circle, being his first release on Coldcut's Ninjatune label. "Kid Koala is a true entertainer," says Coldcut's Matt Black, who signed Koala after hearing one of the mixtapes Eric would piece together and sell to record shops; tapes which are now like gold dust on the hip-hop scene. "Oldcut (sic) can happily retire knowing that the torch has been passed to a new generation of musical hooligans."
Eric, for one, is grateful. "Those guys, they had a MAJOR influence on my life," he marvels, fingering a vinyl copy of Coldcut's 'Beats And Pieces' nailed to the studio wall. "If it weren't for them, I might be working in a bank now." He screws up his face in mock-disgust (like any slacker/achiever hybrid might). "Ugh!"
(c) Stevie Chick 1999
Monday, March 21, 2005
“No Blood, No Fun… No Blood, No Fun… No Blood, No Fun…”
This isn’t the eerie chanted soundtrack to some riotous backstage Bacchanal, but the murmured mantra of a sulkily pouting Pal Pot Pamparius, slouched in a plush taupe armchair in the foyer of the towering glass’n’marble phallus that is San Francisco’s Parc 55 Hotel. He’s reeling from the information the band’s dour Scouse tour manager Dean just delivered: that that evening’s venue, The Great American Music Hall (a shack every bit as grandiose as its name suggests) has firmly vetoed the fake-blood and tarred-feathers usually in their stage-show. When your rapidly-skyrocketing career depends so entirely on the extravagant Rocky Horror Punk-Rock Show you deliver every single night, such frustration is entirely understandable.
“We had to play two shows in one night at the Troubadour in LA and Emo’s in
So speaks Happy Tom of Norway’s infamous Turbonegro’s first solo sortie across the US since imploding messily towards the end of the 1990s (they spent the summer as support to Queens Of The Stoneage, playing a couple of headline shows at key cities). The bassist and founder member is usually so acerbic and wicked a wit that he speaks in perfect sarcastic soundbytes. Only, when talking about this latest twist in his band’s unlikely Fall & Rise – an acclaim and acceptance they never before enjoyed, and certainly never expected – his words aren’t so much pithy as proud. Given the grisly twists of fate his band have suffered throughout their career, we’ll forgive him the crowing. This is a band that’s spilt plenty of blood over the years, and who seem grateful that it’s more likely to be the fake variety nowadays.
But while each member of Turbo swans with similarly-iconic swagger onstage, Hank easily wins the lion’s share of the fans’ affections; it’s his black teary make-up that the Turbojugend copy and tattoo on their arms, and it is upon his tenuous mental and chemical health that this reunited Turbonegro depend.
“Lasssst night, a laaaaadyboy walked up to Happy Tom,” he brays, theatrically hissing each sibilant sound like the snake from the Jungle Book, as his adoring crowd cheer him on. “And he ssssaid, I vant to take your anal virrrrrgi-ni-ty! But Happy Tom said, no! You cannot haffff my anal cherry! I am ssssssaving if for the S! F! P! D!”
As Hank slurs the good name of the San Francisco police force, the audience erupts, a capacity crowd of cool SF scenesters, tattooed-and-mohicanned punk kids, dressed-down weekend-rockers and, of course, the Turbojugend in their signature Turbo denim jackets, a motley sea of heads moshing in reverence towards this most perverse but deserving subject of rock’n’roll worship.
“There’s no such thing as a ‘typical’ Turbonegro fan,” declares Tom backstage later, having showered away the sweat and spit. “Anyone from street-punks to college professors, anyone who’s ever had a relationship with rock’n’roll can relate to us.”
“We seem to strike a chord with sex-workers,” adds Tom, noting that porno industry bible Adult Video News has interviewed them. “We’ve seen strippers dance to ‘Sell Your Body (To The Night)’. I guess they can relate to us, being whores onstage.”
“It’s like a family feeling at our shows,” he adds. “A Manson family feeling.”
For all that Tom jokes, few bands are so generous and grateful to their fans as Turbonegro; but then, few bands owe their fans quite so much. Through the fallow period that followed Hank’s heroin-induced breakdown, it was the Turbojugend, and celebrity fans like QOTSA, Dwarves, Therapy? And Him (who all appeared on 2001’s Alpha Motherfuckers tribute album) who kept their memory alive, kept them the coolest cult band you never heard. The “voiceless fuckers and system-suckers” hailed in ‘Ride With Us’ off Turbonegro’s pulverising comeback LP, Scandinavian Leather, these rock’n’roll fans have a hunger for noise immunising them from what Tom disdainfully defines as ‘The Hype Machine’.
“We aren’t obvious flag-bearers for the ‘New Rock Revolution’ bullshit, the people, the grass roots, have declared us the saviours of rock.” he swaggers. But their ranks have recently swollen thanks to some pretty stellar new members…
“Steve Jones from Sex Pistols has started up his own chapter in Shepherds Bush, and is trying to get the reformed Pistols to cover a Turbo song,” beams Tom. “Ian Astbury turned up to the LA shows in his Turbojugend jacket! All our heroes are now Turbo-fans!”
“James Hetfield said Apocalypse Dudes [Turbo’s 1999 classic] is his favourite album of recent years,” adds Hank. “Bam Margera loves our band so much that he invited us out to his home to film us playing and shooting guns at cars full of petrol. And Alice Cooper is a big fan, he couldn’t believe we were Norwegian! That was the headline, when he was interviewed by the Norwegian Daily, ‘Alice Cooper: Loves Golf & Turbonegro’!”
He smiles, but then sighs. A near manic-depressive seesaw of joy and melancholy seems uniform for the men in Turbonegro, perhaps a result of their tumultuous career, perhaps just par for the course for so theatrical a band. Whatever, a cloud seems to loom over Hank, as he muses,
“Time will show how far this goes, whether it’s just a novelty. People always chastise us for our pessimism, putting ourselves down as much as possible.”
“But at the same time, we have egos the size of the average aircraft carrier,” deadpans Tom.
“You call it pessimism, we call it realism,” broods Hank.
“You call it paranoia, we also call that realism,” adds Tom.
Only we aren’t on
“We wanted to get that sense of homosexual flamboyance into rock’n’roll again,” reminisces the majestic Hank in the limo, as Euroboy scans the radiowaves searching for a classic-rock station. “Rock’n’roll is very close to transvestism, we’re just coming out and saying it.”
“We’ve had youth workers tell us that heterosexual punk kids who could be hassling the gay kids don’t now, because they like us, and we’ve made the ‘gay thing’ cool,” adds Tom, somewhat implausibly.
Of course, even the most cursory sampling of Turbonegro suggests their gay façade is little more than a tongue-in-(ass)cheek prank, fetishising homosexuality as some lurid carnival of puckering assholes and randy sailor-boys. They’re more camp than anything, a brash and hilarious caricature of rock’n’roll’s ridiculousness, painted so much larger-than-life, anyone with a taste for sinful fun is gonna want to buy in.
“We’re a cartoon band,” admits Hank gladly, as the band pose before the glorious bridge. “A cartoon illustration of the ultimate rock’n’roll show.”
“We’re a glorious cascade of negativity!” declares Tom, with an actorly flourish.
“When you see us onstage,” adds Euroboy, “You get a taste of something that says, let’s fucking party! I feel like a total rock God.”
“We allow the idea of idolisation back into rock’n’roll,” continues Tom. “It’s a mutual game, the audience feigns submission to us rock’n’roll Gods. We let people be fans again.”
“The message those shoegazey indie-rock bands proclaimed, that they were the same as their audiences, was a necessary reaction to a lot of rock’n’roll bullshit in the late ‘80s. But rock’n’roll is very much about the rock star, he’s like a nobleman, a God to worship. That’s what feeds the rock star, and what feeds the rock fan.”
“Motorhead did so much damage with that song, ‘We Are The Road Crew’,” sighs Euroboy, the band’s resident classic-rawk scholar. “We need to write a song, ‘We Are The Artistes’!”
“We’ve been through so much shit, we’ve seen through all the hypocrisy of the ‘underground’; ‘4 Real’ is just a pose, and the only way to actually be For Real is to pose,” reasons Hank, of their gaudy and exhilarating rock’n’roll alter-egos which are still more convincing, more honest than a million humourless, factory-produced ‘punk’ bands.
At that moment, a little kid standing watching the shoot, fascinated by these painted, flamboyant rock stars, breaks from his mum’s hand and runs up to the band, jumping up and down excitedly. The band grin and pose with the boy, who can’t be more than 4 years old, as his mum takes photos. Then she pulls a candy bar out of her pocket and hands it to Happy Tom, urging the make-up-wearing sailor to pose offering the candy to the kid in the classic child-molestor style, giggling while she took more photos. Even the band themselves admitted feeling a little freaked out by the experience, afterwards.
If there’s any sense of real and disquieting darkness at the heart of Turbonegro’s painted punk-rock pageant, then it lies with Hank Von Helvete. It was Hank who paid the most severe consequences for the excesses of the 1990s, hallucinating and suicidal and hooked on heroin, effectively killing the band just as they released their masterpiece album, 1998’s Apocalypse Dudes. But in a very real sense, Hank is the heart and soul of Turbonegro, even though he wasn’t a founder member.
“The first singer got too old and got cancer, so I joined,” he says, blackly. “I used to live with him and this blind dope dealer in a squat in
Did you truly believe in nihilism?
“I tended towards it,” says Hank, of the philosophy that rejects any moral distinctions in favour of an extreme scepticism. “I have a much stronger belief system now. But all Nihilist philosophers come to the same ultimate conclusion, that once you’ve dispatched with everything you believe in, all you have left is love, the one thing you can’t reject. And then you can rebuild your life.”
There are times when you worry for Hank, when he seems so truly troubled. In the limo earlier, as the boys discussed their earlier ‘insanity’, Hank silently and privately genuflected at that word. Interviewing him backstage at Slim’s, venue for their second
“People think being in a band made me a junkie, because that’s where all the temptations are,” he says. “But I never took drugs with the band. Turbonegro was keeping me alive, away from the drugs.
“I was involved in this very intense project of killing myself, you see? When the band split up, it was like shedding a heavy weight off my back, so I could continue killing myself. And then I turned my back on the whole urban life. I moved to a quiet rural fishing village, worked in a library. I needed the peace and quiet. But after a while that got boring, especially as I got my strength back. I went several rounds with myself, trying to find out who I was. And I realised being a rock singer was such a huge part of my identity, and I had to start playing in the band again. Or I could give up on the whole rehab and get back to killing myself again.”
“We are the uncircumcised Ramonessss!!!”
The Slim’s show rocks even harder than the previous night, a riot from the lit-touchpaper ignition-riff of ‘Wipe It Till It Bleeds’. Towards the end of the set, comedian/actor Dave Sheridan (supporting the tour with his comedy-metal troupe Van Stone) walks onstage, as their ‘manager’. He barks into his cellphone, then urges a gleeful Hank to chuck several buckets of fake blood over front row, and the band plough into a glorious call-and-response version of ‘I Got Erection’. The moshpit just utterly explodes, slamming and skidding lustily but considerately. Turbo, meanwhile, rock out like the utter fucking rock’n’roll Gods they are whenever they daub on the make-up, assuming their role in this glam-rock S&M
They call it death-punk, but this pageant is so utterly life-affirming. The blood’s fake, but the fun is very, very real.