“I know that I’m fucked, so fuck it, I might as well break everything.”
- Aaron North
Ultimately, everything ends up as shards, ashes, dust anyway. What matters is what you do while you’re still corporeal: your choices, actions and reactions. Something beyond simple stimulus-response, beyond taking the easy way out and abandoning your self to the vacant flow.
Thinking for yourself. Choosing a path because the challenge suits you, not because the terrain is easiest. Doing what you feel is right, what you want, even if that means a trial by the realities of that decision.
Call it integrity, call it bullheadedness, call it impetuosity (I’ll call it ‘Punk Rock’, and a fair few other things besides). This life is lonely, hard, and only ever ends in tragedy. It’s still the only life worth living.
The Icarus Line, from California, are a punk-rock band. At times, they feel like the only punk-rock band left.
It’s a muggy, overcast afternoon early in the summer of 2002, and Aaron North cradles the tarnished body of a beheaded guitar, fingers the chipped knobs and inspects the traumatised inner workings for irreparable damage. Only moments earlier, a teenaged-girl (dressed in black with scarlet eyeshadow, in the manner the band choose onstage) had returned the mutilated instrument to the guitarist, after extended e-mail negotiation on North’s part to retrieve it. The guitar had been snatched, post-obliteration, from the debris the band had left in their wake after one of the shows on their recent, troubled European tour.
The guitar was recovered, not as some trophy, but because Aaron simply cannot afford to leave broken instruments for the fans’ memorabilia. After tonight’s show, as their rickety tourbus wends its way to the next face-off in a series of increasingly confrontational gigs, he’ll spend hours re-attaching the neck to the body, trying to bring the broken instrument back to life.
“We don’t rely on anyone, we’re totally self-sufficient,” he says, not a note of self-pity in his voice. “I’ve had to work for everything that I wanted. My family never supported me in music, they thought it was a nowhere thing. All the gear I have now is the same gear I bought when I was a pizza delivery boy, saving every last dime. Before that, I worked every spare hour at a video store so we could buy a van and tour when we still in High School.
“Every time we come home off tour, everything’s broken. I spend all the money I make having to fix my gear, so we can go and pay more shows and I can come home broke and with all my gear broken again. If I break my guitar, then that’s where the frustration’s coming from. I’m frustrated because something’s broken, and I know that I’m fucked, so fuck it, I’ll break everything.”
Aaron sighs and walks back into the Camden Monarch, where a communication breakdown between his hastily-repaired American equipment and the venue’s British power-sockets has reduced soundcheck to a long and tedious sequence of power-failures, explosions and squeals of ear-piercing feedback. Singer Joe Cardamone repairs to the van where he will remain, sulky, immovable and incommunicative, until the band hit the stage a few hours later.
Bassist Lance ‘Mogwai’ Arnao and guitarist Alvin Deguzman slope off into Camden to get some food, and I introduce myself to the band’s new drummer, their seventh, Troy (replacing previous sticksman The Captain), who is leaning against the venue doorway. I ask him how long he’s been with the band, he answers a couple of weeks. Then I ask him how he’s enjoying the experience. He doesn’t answer, but the sour grin he shoots me suggests his tenure on the Icarus Line drumstool might be too short to leave an indent.
Rewind to March of this year, the last day of the annual music industry clusterfuck South By Southwest in Austin, Texas. We’re ducked down in a shitty tourbus outside Emo’s, one eye cocked for neanderthal security from the nearby Hard Rock Cafe who, word has it, are looking to pulp the band for their fractious performance at the venue the night before.
It was a tense show, unforgettable, perhaps the most fearsome gig I’ve ever seen in my life; unforgiving, vicious. Over forty minutes, the band’s grinding comedown rock slowly but surely cleared the venue of all the shark-like A&R men out to catch Sparta (featuring ex-members of At The Drive-In, recently signed to Dreamworks for megabucks), and anyone in the audience not attuned to the band’s uncompromising meld of Sabbath-sludge and Stooges-slash, as the band drew out the abrasive slo-mo spasm of “SPMC” to breaking point. Up in the peanut gallery, employees of Fred Durst’s record label pelted the band with their complimentary cold-cuts and sandwiches, in retaliation for the band’s continued mockery of the Limp Bizkit frontman on North’s website www.buddyhead.com.
As the set wound up to its climax, the friction between the music industry bullshit and the band’s fuck-you integrity ignited. Cardamone glided into the crowd, looped his mic-cord round the neck of a persistent heckler and dragged the trouble-maker forcibly to the ground. Returning to the stage, he clambered atop a speaker-stack and tore down a “SXSW” banner, mobilising nervous venue security at the foot of the stage. While Cardamone distracted their attention, North plucked up the mic-stand and smashed open a glass-case suspended stage-right, containing what was, supposedly, an guitar originally belonging to beloved, long-dead Texas whiteboy bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan. He grabbed the guitar, and plugged it in.
“It was like I spat on their mothers or something,” remembers Aaron the next day, of the moment when seven lumbering rednecks invaded the stage, after his hide. Cardamone and North, wisely, threw the guitar at ‘em and dashed out into the sultry Texas night, while their bandmates remained onstage to rescue their equipment from the increasingly-violent security guards clearing the venue.
“Guys like that are looking for any excuse to break some bones,” drawls Cardamone, laconically draped across the van’s passenger seat. “If the cops hadn’t been there, we woulda probably gotten fucked up pretty bad. Whenever we tour, people show up saying they’re gonna fuck with us, steal our gear, kick our asses. I’ve always gotten shit off those kind of assholes, though, even before I was in a band. The first time it happened I was seriously bummed, because I couldn’t understand why it was happening. It’s happened so many times since then, I’m obviously doing something to bum these people out. Fuck ‘em. It’s cool. It’s nice to get a reaction.”
The mood in the bus is tense, which I later discover is par for The Icarus Line’s chosen course. The band are tired, hungry, broke. In a matter of minutes, they’ll walk onstage Emo’s and play arguably the best show of their career, translating this tension into a performance that crackles with menace like a loose power cable. The songs off their brutalising debut album “Mono” are transformed into elastic grooves of menace, the burning embers of riffage glowing anxiously and exploding into scabbed pillars of rage, Cardamone prowling the stage and shaking his body so hard his shock-straight hair blurs in constant motion. It’s the sound of a band releasing everything bottled up inside them in one last blood-splattered burst, with little care for what might follow.
That morning, the local Austin press predictably lambasted the Hard Rock Cafe show, casting the display as some tedious publicity-stunt on the part of some attention-hungry brats. They were wrong, however. This was just another night in The Icarus Line’s ongoing battle against mediocrity and tedium and the fake bullshit that operates under the flimsy veneer of rock’n’roll, a moment of art’n’poetry to choke all the commerce. And ultimately, as ever, it was The Icarus Line who fielded the wounds. Days later, The Captain quit the band.
“We did a European tour, just before SXSW,” remembers Aaron now. “It was two months in the bitter cold, getting ripped off financially and getting real sick. It was tough. He just slowly started to lose his mind a bit. It was pretty intense.
“We told Troy when he joined, this is not a hobby,” he continues. “We’re gonna tour for months on end, and if you gotta eat shit, sleep on floors and play hurt once in a while, that’s tough. If you wanna be in the band, that’s they way things are. We’re not gonna rub anybody’s crotches to make ‘em feel better.”
To the average kid walking in the street, his head fulla Blink182MTVJUNK, The Icarus Line aren’t ‘punk’. For one thing, they all got long hair. For another, they wear all black. Furthermore, they prefer churning ten-minute dirge-noise to dayglo two-minute blasts of radio-friendly noise.
Average kids - no, make that average anybodies - are fucken dumb.
The only reason The Icarus Line mightn’t be considered ‘punk’ is because the term has been rendered meaningless by years of overuse and abuse. The Icarus Line are punk through the sheer confrontational nature of their performances, their sense of integrity, their belief in what they do. When Aaron talks of the band’s ethos, of their displacement, of their battle-scarred and incident strewn history, it’s as if he’s reading aloud passages from “Get In The Van”, Henry Rollins’ journal of the violence and deprivation on the road with Black Flag.
This era of punk-rock, and the ‘Flag’s pepper-spray and PCP shredded tour of duty in particular, are important influences on The Icarus Line. Sipping a glass of still water (he’s straight-edge) outside a Camden bar, an hour before his band are due onstage, he tries to make sense of why they’ve chosen this grisly and largely-thankless path.
“Because the passion... Because it has to come through, in the music,” he falters. “You can listen to a band like Black Flag and know those guys ‘Mean’ it. Listen to Blink 182 or whoever and it sounds like a bunch of spoilt white kids from some suburban town where alls they really care about is whether or not they’ve got a new girlfriend. That doesn’t interest me, that’s really boring. I don’t want this to turn into some shit-talking thing, you know... But... ‘You can’t fake the funk’, I guess [laughs]. You can’t fake it. People can tell.”
They fact is, of course, ‘people’ can’t tell, or they choose not to. The Icarus Line don’t fake what they do because if they did, they’d know they were liars. They are, to echo a twenty-year old Minor Threat chorus, Out Of Step With The World.
“I knew early on that this was all I wanted to do,” he continues. “I was lucky enough to grow up in the South Bay, the same area that Black Flag, The Circle Jerks and The Descendents were from. My mom went to high school with the guys from Black Flag. I was exposed to Punk Rock at a pretty young age, and definitely before it was ‘cool’ to be punk-rock. Before bands like Green Day and Offspring made it cool to have ‘weird’ hair and stuff. I’d get beaten up, called a ‘faggot’...
“I don’t know,” he sighs, “Back then, if you saw another kid wearing a ‘punk’ tee-shirt, you’d think, ‘cool, we’ve got something in common’. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I don’t know if it’s because I’m older or I’m jaded...”
Aaron North is a wizened twenty-three years old.
“...’Punk-Rock’ is everywhere now, you don’t have to search for it. It’s no longer a struggle. Like skate-boarding. When I was a kid, skateboarding meant you were really ‘out there’, you were on the fringe, giving the middle-finger to everybody. Now, every kid’s got a Tony Hawks videogame. There are shopping malls in SoCal that have half-pipes and skateparks. The skaters are the kids at school beating people up now. The ‘punks’, the kids in the ‘New Found Glory’ tees, are on the football team. They’re the bullies now.”
The sense of betrayal that underscores Aaron’s words is touching, his ready cynicism balanced by the deep sense of belief that’s obviously being betrayed every single day. Damn right, Aaron’s pissed off. “I think maybe kids of today have got it too easy. They’re constantly entertained, y’know? Why should they go and seek out music that’s different, difficult? They wake up, go to school, come home, log onto the internet, look at porno all day, watch cable teevee... Whatever, y’know? Life’s grand.
“Maybe it’s just a sign of the times, y’know? Maybe my generation’s the last generation for whom music really, really meant something. Music was my life, and I don’t really see kids who feel that way anymore.”
Y’know something? 2000 words into this splurge, maybe I should start telling you about The Icarus Line’s music.
The Icarus Line are a riot... The sound of things breaking, the sound of disintegration, the edge of destruction. There’s a bleak darkness about their music, too. Cardamone’s own lyrics easily match the Charles Bukowski stream-of-bitterness quoted as lyrics on their “Rape Of The Holy Mother”. And The Icarus Line disregard punk’s ethos of loud-hard-fast; for every barrage of speed-riffed thrash, there’s passages of forbidding, lumbering noise, smouldering threats hanging lazy and lean.
Take the band’s single, “Feed Your Cat To A Cobra”, which opens like a veritable radiofriendlyunitshifter, grrrrage-rawk blasting, hand-clapping, Iggy-yowling and girl-group vocalising. For a whole minute. Then it slips into nightmarish narco-blues territories, lakes of bubbling feedback and disquiet, for another 90 seconds, before jerking into another, more brutal and unforgiving slapshot riff, before the whole thing climaxes like fighter jets colliding in the sky. “They’ve certainly been listening to their Stooges records,” snorted one witness of The Icarus Line’s January 2002 show at London’s 100 Club, and they’re not wrong (and what the fuck of it?), but The Icarus Line have got the seething, septic BALLS to zip through the manic moodswings of, say “Search & Destroy”, “T.V. Eye” and “We Will Fall”, all in the same song. That’s some fucking evolved shit right there.
But, while “Mono” is an amazing debut album, it’s not the whole story, not by a long shot. The meat of The Icarus Line is in their ferocity, their anti-social commitment to their mission, this crazy death trip they’re riding with scant concern for their health, and precious little reward at the end.
I just leafed through my transcripted interview with Aaron, and counted up the number of times he name-checked Black Flag. Seventeen times. And The Icarus Line don’t even sound like Black Flag (they feel like ‘em, but that’s different, better...). Thing is, as much as I revere “Damaged”, respect Greg Ginn’s acidic-jazz geetar skronk, reel frightened from the spidery mania of “In My Head” and “My War”, I gotta admit “Get In The Van” contains more of the essence of what that band means to me. A sense of the stakes they were playing at, they change they wrought, and what it all cost them.
So it is with The Icarus Line. It’s a shame that the show at The Monarch tonight is a mess, the turbulence within the band for once not gelling into a fearsome wave of vitriol tearing from their amps, but rather flailing away impotently, lustlessly. But, contained within the restless, disgusted scowl of Joe Cardamone, within the terrifying Peel Session take of ‘SPMC’ included on the ‘Feed Your Cat’ single (ten minutes of soul-quaking, leather-limbed grind), within Aaron’s steely statements of intent that afternoon, lies the intangible sense of urgency and fierce, death-or-glory intention that eluded them musically.
Maybe it’s the tease of the masterpiece that The Icarus Line’s severity and spirit suggests lies within them. Maybe it’s the seductive heroism, passion and grime-flecked glamour of their mission. There is no band right now who electrify me, who fascinate me, as much as The Icarus Line. Whatever happens next, it’s gonna be worth watching.
Would you say you’re misfits?
“Yeah. People have been fucking with us for a long time. We started this at such a young age, and we got pushed around, we weren’t taken seriously, people thought we didn’t know anything. At a certain point you say, ‘Fuck this’. We’re not macho tough guys or anything, but after the sound guy’s threatened to beat you up for the 300th time in a row, fucken whatever. Charge me for the mic, I’ll break your face open with it.
“We’re in a vicious circle now. ‘The Icarus Line are that band that breaks stuff, gets in fights and spray paints things.’ So people go to shows to thinking, ‘Let’s go and fuck with them’. So people are fucken throwing glasses, spitting at us, trying to steal our pedals or fuck with us while we play. And when some guy’s fucking with my equipment, and I gotta fucken’ kick him in the face, it’s all, ’Icarus Line are dickheads, they kick people in the face’, y’know?”
Do you think the band will still be together in a year’s time?
“Yeah, I think so. I think we’ve got at least another album in us. We’ve worked too hard to let something stupid end it. When we started this band, it wasn’t to be hip, and get signed and be really huge. All I thought would happen through the lifetime of this band was we’d play to twenty people in every town we played, and sell maybe a thousand record. That’s kinda the way we started the band, and that’s the way I reckon the band will end, too.”
(c) Stevie Chick 2002