A Day With The Locust
On the road with the world’s most dangerous band. Also, an investigation of death metal, “hardcore,” millionaire punks and the mysterious…
There is a famous novel about Los Angeles. It was written in 1939, and even in these post-literate times, you may have read it. It’s about this city’s low-rent decadence, its entertainment culture, and the pestilence that infects it. The author was an angry young man by the name of Nathanael West, and I think he saw himself as an antidote to all that. I’m not sure if he lived fast, but he died young and left an ugly corpse, expiring in a car crash on return from holiday in Mexico. The book is called The Day of the Locust. It begins with horrible noise, and a man’s interest being piqued:
Around quitting time, Tod Hackett heard a great din on the road outside his office. The groan of leather mingled with the jangle of iron and over all beat the tattoo of a thousand hooves. He hurried to the window.
For a long time it’s seemed like quitting time in the world of punk rock, and, to put it simply, the Locust are the first band in a long time that makes you want to hurry to the window. Where does the story end? Well, the book culminates in a scene of well-deserved ruination…
The once rebellious music called punk rock has bought for Brett Gurewitz an extremely nice house. It is a little Shangri-la, poised just up the hill from some of the nicer hotels on Sunset Boulevard, a stone’s throw from the hubbub of the Strip.
Sunset is the party capital for a certain brand of cheesy L.A. individual. On weekends, the bars and clubs are mobbed with the comings and goings of girls in thongs and platform shoes and men with bad haircuts and shiny shirts. It’s no easy feat to park north of the Strip on a Friday night, and as I drove up and down Gurewitz’s block three or four times, looking for his place, I wondered if I’d have to splurge $20 on a valet, until I realized just which house he lived in. Namely, the one with the large gate, the 30-car driveway, the large heated pool, and the terraced landscaping that leads forever and onward into the Hollywood Hills.
A nice house. Plenty of parking.
Gurewitz was hosting a pizza party for the Locust, a band of San Diego punks he’d just signed to an offshoot of Epitaph Records, the label that has earned him his fortune. Gurewitz is one of punk’s great popularizers. He started Epitaph in the early ’80s to release albums by his own band, Bad Religion. It’s fair to say his label has expanded in ways no one ever expected. In the mid-’90s, in the aftermath of the alt-rock explosion, he released an album by the Offspring ironically titled Smash. By some fluke it became one, selling more than 8 million copies. The label’s income octupled that year, serving as a wake-up call to the record industry that nouveau California-style punk — impertinent, catchy, fun — was huge business.
By contrast, the Locust are one of the few contemporary punk bands that seem like they could have lurked forever in the underground. Their music is a potent and sui generis mix of new wave and hardcore, Devo and death metal, prog-rock and more unspeakable complications. They have been playing together since 1995 and, in the mode of predecessors like Fugazi, Green Day and Rancid, they are regulars on a circuit of all-ages punk clubs such as L.A.’s the Smell and Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street. For a long time, they sold out shows by word of mouth alone, often earning no more than $50 for their trouble. Their previous albums sold tens of thousands of copies within weeks of release without benefit of marketing dollars or mainstream press. All at once they were the underground music scene’s staunchest advocates, most prominent face and best-kept secret.
The band developed at an important juncture in punk rock’s life. After the Offspring, the genre’s core values — egalitarianism, thrift, rebellion — would be in question. Proud poverty was no longer a virtue punk rockers embraced by necessity. Groups like Blink-182, Good Charlotte and Something Corporate formulated a musical blend that was at once incongruous and tailor-made for success, combining the sweet melodicism of the Buzzcocks, the snarly attitude of the Sex Pistols and the good cheer of the Backstreet Boys. For a long time, no punk band really rose to the challenge of creating a new, more dangerous paradigm for punk — one that was simultaneously appealing yet gnomic, obscure yet inevitable.
The Locust rise to that challenge. Guitar parts splayed like roadkill. Bass lines so chaotic they disturb your stomach. Drums pounded as if by machines. Their songs routinely clock in at under 60 seconds, yet are composed with such care that they demand an hour of listening. And all of it is splattered with an overlay of Jackson Pollock keyboards; buzzing, humming, swarming sounds; seagull-screech voices; cruel humor and confounding style.
On its face, the marriage between Gurewitz and the Locust seems an odd one, and when news of the union first spread, those who take the slogan “DIY or die” to heart were shocked. (Even the Locust refused to be on Epitaph proper and demanded to be signed to Anti-, a more eclectic side imprint currently home to Tom Waits, Merle Haggard and Buju Banton.) I was surprised, then, that when I approached Gurewitz at the party, he displayed an uncanny understanding of the group’s essence.
“Yes, it’s just noise,” he said, “but they’re taking it to a new level of virtuosity. When I listen to them I think of classical music, I think of jazz, I think of Philip Glass. I think it’s truly avant-garde, and that’s why it gets me really excited to hear it, and see it, and talk about it. And their records — granted, they can be used to piss off parents, but so could an electric sander. In both cases, the noise is a symptom, a happy accident, but it’s not what it’s all about.”
Gurewitz wore a T-shirt and jeans, but his angular glasses would have looked at home on an architect’s face, and his salt-and-pepper flattop said “entertainment executive,” not “revolutionary.” Yet while the outward signs weren’t there, something about the Locust had clearly reawakened his imagination.
“You want to know something?” he continued. “The thing I care about with this band is that musicians understand it. For example, Bad Religion’s drummer, Brooks Wackerman, is someone I really respect. He’s from a musical family. His dad’s a music teacher, his brother Chad played with Zappa, and Brooks himself is a virtuoso. Of all the bands I’ve ever signed, the Locust is his favorite. On first listen, his jaw just dropped, and he sat there for an hour and listened to the record three times in a row. Then he called me and said, â€˜Brett, I never knew such music was possible.’ And that’s why I like them, too. I never knew such music was possible.”
Q: You’d like to see a change in people’s view of music; or possibly destroy music in general. What would constitute the success of those goals for you?
Joey: When Orthrelm are Grammy Award winners and Justin Timberlake has to suck dick for heroin.
— Amp interview with Joey Karam of the Locust
I had my first run-in with the Locust at a sold-out show at the Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard. The band was set to take the stage after three other groups, each possessed of a degree of fury but no particular innovation. The crowd buzzed like dogs unsatisfied by their first course of meat. Occasionally they let off the stray profanity and bon mot. “Aargh!” Ha ha ha. “End racism, dude.” “Fucking fuck, man.” “Fuuuuuck!” “No war in Iraq!”
The audience was filled with modern-day punks — black-haired teenagers with overgrown locks shaped into disarray, young women and men in tight black jeans with pegged legs, wearing T’s for the same damn bands that punks revered 10 years ago (the Dead Kennedys, Discharge, Fugazi) and a smattering of more recent vintage (AFI, Sparta, Blood Brothers). In attendance was Cedric Bixler-Zavalas, the singer for one of those newer bands, the Mars Volta. He’s a longtime friend of the Locust; his previous band At the Drive-In invited them on several world tours. During the interval, he emitted multiple full-body belly laughs, burped and, apropos of nothing, said the word Manwich.
Then the boredom ended. The four members of the Locust took the stage. Ethnically speaking, the group is a heterogeneous mix of SoCal types. Guitarist Bobby Bray, 27, is half-Mexican; keyboardist Joey Karam, 27, is Palestinian; drummer Gabe Serbian, 26, is Armenian; and bassist Justin Pearson, 28, is a Caucasian mutt. However, they all share a common build, and seeing them together onstage is a Central Casting moment: Seeking sinewy, 120-lb. 20-somethings. They are wiry, lean and beautiful, skinny like the syphilitic manboys in an Egon Schiele painting, like twisted branches coated with rain. Any ethnic markers are hidden by the evocative uniforms the band always wear onstage — formfitting full-body suits colored a dingy green.
The outfits have the look of camouflage designed for a sticky, hot mosquito bog, only the material they’re made of is rough like unfinished canvas, but skintight like spandex. They have upper-arm vents made of mesh, and holes punched in the hoods covered in the same material. Their mouths and eyes are big fishnet circles. So while on first glance the suits make them look like soldiers prepped for chemical warfare, or like exterminators, after a while they begin to look like mosquitoes, or fashion-forward members of an S&M club.
Vocalist and bassist Justin Pearson, a.k.a. JP, walked up to the mic, and though the band had yet to start, he appeared to have a chip on his shoulder the size and age of Plymouth Rock. “I hope you’ve gotten your tough-guy bullshit out of your systems,” he said. Gnyah! Spitting it out.
“So there are all these atoms, and . . .” said Bobby. He trailed off and struck his guitar. The music began, and gravity started. The Locust’s music has a concussive force, and hearing it for the first time is a bit like being thrust into the first seconds of a car crash. You are braced then pummeled, frozen in place yet subject to horrible pressures. And it’s more than the furious swirl of the audience, kids crashing into kids. The sound itself is a brutal object, a paperweight made of diamonds. These atoms have mass and a delicately chiseled form, and they will cut or bludgeon, depending on how you handle them.
In the live setting, though, it was hard to make out much of anything, and the kids began heckling. They always do at the Locust’s shows. “Play the fast one!” yelled one kid. “Pussies!” said another.
“There’s nothing wrong with pussy, man,” said JP. “You’re looking at four of them onstage.” The band kicked in again, like a particle accelerator punching holes in air.
“I guess that was the ballad,” said another heckler. Like Elvis and the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols before them, the Locust jab at the ears in a manner previously unforeseen, generating a physical twitch; there is something inherent to their music that agitates primal things inside us. I quickly got a sense of the misconceptions the band must deal with, playing this highly advanced stuff night after night to frustrated teenagers just getting that tough-guy bullshit out of their systems.
“Okay guys,” said drummer Gabe Serbian, “we’re on the highway to the danger zone.”
Two weeks after the Troubadour gig, I asked the band if I could ride along on a quick swing across the border. They assented, and we were hurtling down the stretch of Interstate 5 that runs into Tijuana. Tonight they had a gig scheduled at Tilly’s, their regular south-of-the-border haunt. Three-fourths of them are from San Diego (keyboardist Joey Karam is from the largely industrial L.A. suburb of Downey), but their local scene seems to extend from Los Angeles to Baja. In recent years, they’ve probably played as many shows in L.A. as in the largely venueless San Diego.
All four members were in the van — JP, Gabe, Joey Karam and Bobby Bray. Also riding along was a friend of the group named Shaan. You could call Shaan a musician — he used to play with Joey in a group called Le Shock — but he currently works as a self-proclaimed “paper pusher.” He looked as boring as any cubical mate — nondescript jacket, listless haircut — and he prided himself on sarcasm.
“You can tell you’ve passed into Tijuana when you start seeing all the sad guys selling souvenirs,” he said as we sped past the border. “Hey JP, will you do me a favor and pull over when you see a ceramic cheeseburger with Spider-Man on it?” We were in the thick of TJ horrors: A store selling Mexican car insurance. A building shaped like a tooth (cut-rate dentist). A number of storefronts with gaudy posters advertising popular prescription drugs like Viagra, Vicodin and Prozac.
“Look at the zebras,” said JP, a tinge of wonder and idealism in his voice. He pointed to the intersection, and we saw them, each one in the care of a man with a Polaroid camera. I noted that the zebras were actually donkeys, shaved and spray-painted black and white.
“Exotic,” said Shaan and Gabe in unison.
The cassette tapes littering the van’s dash offered clues to the Locust’s influences and ambitions. System of a Down’s Toxicity, the Beatles’ Let It Be and a mix tape labeled “WEIRDNESS” that jumbled art-rock (Renaldo and the Loaf, Art Bears) and the most intense hardcore (Honeywell, Angel Hair, Drop Dead, Anal Cunt, Crossed Out) as if no distinctions were possible. The band seem unaware of genre boundaries, which is not to say they are unaware of what they create.
“We play what feels right, usually music that is loud, hard, weird and fast,” said Bobby. “Our tastes and abilities have evolved, but our basic interests and goals haven’t changed. If you’re asking in terms of music or art as a thing, or the role of what we’re doing in society, or the history of arts and music . . .”
Gabe broke in. “Anything could be art, you know?”
“It’s nice to think we could have some kind of impact on human brains,” continued Bobby. “Maybe we could fulfill some role in consciousness evolution, because of the way our songs have super-rapid tempo changes, and all of these things.” Bobby is part dreamer, part scientist, part weirdo. He’s a bit quieter, a bit plumper and a bit softer than the rest of the group, and when he talks, it’s a bit like discussing psychology with an errant Scientologist.
“Perhaps the sound could act as some kind of wave retraining human brains to think in different ways,” he mused. “Maybe if we could start to make people do all that work subconsciously and process information that quickly, well, then maybe there wouldn’t be so many problems on the planet, you know?” He paused. “Then again, that’s kind of a delusional thought.”
“It’s just like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, you know?” said Gabe. “Their music saves the world . . .”
“I think it’s the fantasy of all musicians,” said Bobby. “It’s a nice thing, but I guess it’s not realistic.”
Gabe was dubious. “I never think of anything like that. Hey, Bobby, why don’t you talk about the time you tried to make out with your mom?”
We arrived at the club, a restaurant in the shadow of a jai alai fronton, at RevoluciÃ³n Avenue and Seventh. In the parking lot we spotted what looked like a dead dog, until it got up, panting from the heat. I asked the band what they thought of the place. Questions of venue safety were in the air.
“We like it,” said JP. “The last time I was at a Tilly’s show, someone got stabbed in the neck.”
Justin Pearson may not be the Locust’s official spokesperson, but he is clearly the star attraction. He’s taller than the others by a full head, rail thin, and has the cheekbones and gaunt scowl of James Dean; he also looks a bit like Leave It to Beaver’s Eddie Haskell. He is committed to his art like no one I’ve ever met. Subsequent to our day in TJ, he had become ill from performing so much. (The group plays over a hundred shows a year.) Yet he remained energetic and enthused to play some more. Last time we spoke, he casually informed me that he’d gone to the hospital on a recent night off and been diagnosed with meningitis. But, armed with antibiotics, he played a gig the next night.
A behind-the-scenes entrepreneur, JP owns 3–1G, a micro-indie record label that specializes in a genre Spin has dubbed “screamo” — throat-blasting, highly emotional hardcore. Yet JP also has a public persona, and has been at the center of most of the Locust’s promotional stunts. They have wheedled their way onto soundtracks for Toxic Adventure IV and John Waters’ Cecil B. Demented; JP has personally orchestrated a number of gender-baiting incidents reaching beyond the incestuous world of hardcore. He and drummer Gabe Serbian staged a fake same-sex marriage while on tour in Hawaii. Recently he appeared as a “rock-star slut” in an episode of The Jerry Springer Show. It culminated in a French kiss with Scott Beiben, owner of the record label Bloodlink.
When compared to the rest of the Locust, JP is somehow . . . different. His sexual orientation is unclear, but he’s definitely more socially astute than the rest, aware of a wider context, quicker and more fashionable. On the day of the Tijuana show a thick blond skunk stripe cut through his dyed black hair. He wore a yellow T-shirt with a black Charlie Brown squiggle, black knit pants pegged at the ankle and Pro Keds black sneaks. JP talks fast, and seems to think fast, so much so that I wondered why his words didn’t collapse into stutters, and understood why his music did.
“I was a weird kid,” he explained, as the sun went down outside Tilly’s. “I didn’t like girls, I liked music, but it was more than just the sound, it was the aesthetics. My mother has photos of me at 5 years old, wearing cowboy boots in front of a big poster of Kiss, holding a trumpet. By age 10, I was into the Sex Pistols. I loved skateboarding, Thrasher magazine comps, bands like Septic Death and Suicidal Tendencies. Eventually my tastes narrowed, and I was only into things that touched on social politics. I wasn’t into bands getting wasted. I wanted my music to have substance, to be a big threat.”
Eventually, JP fell under the sway of San Diego’s hardcore scene. In the mid-’90s, the region incubated perhaps the most extreme, progressive and musically profound punk music of the past decade. Bands with fearsome names like Heroin, Clikatat Ikatowi and Antioch Arrow ruled the day, recording primarily for the local Gravity label. Many think hardcore began and ended with Black Flag and Minor Threat, but in the hands of these San Diego groups, the style evolved into a chaotic horror previously unconceived: harder, faster, more intense, like a Dadaist talent show with more instruments and less pretense. JP witnessed it as a member of a local band called Swing Kids.
“My old band would occasionally get a show at the Che CafÃ©,” he said, citing an all-ages club on the campus of UC San Diego named after Che Guevara. “I’d go there and talk to all the bands. They were really down-to-earth people, but they had this art that was just mind-blowing. When they played they would turn into ax murderers on instruments. The one all of us fell in love with was Crossed Out. There’s a 7-inch split with a band called Man Is the Bastard, and to this day, it is the most brutal thing I’ve ever heard. You hear the nu-metal bands and they’re trying to be tough and mean and brutal, but this was just like . . . It was a different thing, man. It was like murderer shit. You’d just be like fuuuuuck, that’s harsh.”
I still had one unanswered question: How and why did such music emerge from San Diego?
“I think it’s an interesting case,” he said. “People are always saying to us, Oh, you have it made, because it’s such a rich city and it has really nice weather. But not everyone in the city is rich. It’s a tourist city, and there’s a percentage of people that are rich, but then there’s this percentage of people that can’t really enjoy the nice fucking weather because they’re working class or poor or worse.
“There’s a lot of hostility and negative energy in San Diego, and so much of the stuff that’s wrong with this country is focused here. The city is very conservative. It has a huge military presence. There is all kinds of fucked-up shit going on near the border, and some very well-developed institutional racism. San Diego is the corner of the United States, and sometimes I think of it as this pit of shit that drains into the ocean. Thankfully, these dynamics eat away at people that are productive and progressive, and they create art forms that are just seriously amazing.”
I later talked to Bobby about JP. The way he summed up his world-view put a different spin on things: “The one thing you have to understand about JP is that basically he’s a bit of a neat freak.”
So, you’ve gone through with it, and bought a record by the Locust. I agree with you, the first half-dozen times, it’s easy to hate. On first exposure, the Locust sound like a train wreck — a hip-hop station and a heavy-metal station and a new-wave station all blaring at the same time in a wind tunnel, and sped up double-time. It’s like that scene Nathanael West used to open his book: a great din, a horrible noise. But it gets you to the window.
If you remain at the window for a little while, you’ll begin to recognize additional elements quite unusual in the universe of hardcore punk: humor and style. The two qualities have nothing to do with the band’s sound, yet they’re among the most important parts of the package. In the music of the Locust, incomprehensible lyrics are matched with song titles that unpack their intentions in the same way haiku probes the mysteries of nature: “Priest With the Sexually Transmitted Diseases Get Out of My Bed,” “Can We Get Another Nail in the Coffin of Culture Theft?,” “Get Off the Cross the Wood Is Needed.” In marketing themselves, the band has introduced fashion, frivolity and wit to a world long dominated by economy and masculinity. The merch table at their shows stocks not only records and bumper stickers but cast-iron belt buckles, compact makeup mirrors jokingly sold as cocaine paraphernalia, commemorative magnets encased in bars of soap, records shaped like vomit, blood and piss, and, most recently, a limited-edition set of four 7-inch records that function as interlocking puzzle pieces.
Combine all these stylistic elements with the music — dense, impossible, almost nonsensically complex — and you’re left with hardcore punk that works on many levels, a kind of Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk writ small for the punk-rock stage.
“This is going to sound really pompous,” said label head Gurewitz, “but James Joyce held that it was really hard to write Ulysses, so it should be really hard for you to read it. It wasn’t stream-of-consciousness like Kerouac. You had to look really hard to get all you could out of it. The Locust put that much into their act. A lot of the songs might only be a minute long, but it’s not just grindcore. They are painstakingly written and orchestrated. They took years to write and have 20,000 notes. Now, I’ll confess, I’ve attempted to read Ulysses three times and failed. But, if you’re really serious about loving the Locust, you have to put work into listening to it, and if you do, the payoff is amazing. It takes you out of your body like a drug. Your brain feels different. It’s like an audio hallucination.”
If JP is the Locust’s star and visionary, Bobby and Gabe are the musical backbone. Bobby’s guitars take the listener to a new level of consciousness, Gabe’s drumming keeps things grounded. I first spotted Gabe pulling into Brett Gurewitz’s driveway behind the wheel of a BMW convertible. He said it was his girlfriend’s. Despite the fact that the Locust have hardly grown rich off their music, Serbian seems to have exotic tastes. In TJ, he wore designer jeans, trendy Campers bowling shoes and big sunglasses that looked like they belonged on the head of Jackie O. As if to show how punk has changed, the outfit was topped off with a sleeveless black T-shirt for the band Mohinder, one of the group’s San Diego predecessors.
I wondered: Death metal, grindcore, hardcore — it all tends to be a growly blur, no? Does it make any difference how the sounds are made?
“That’s bullshit,” said Gabe.
“All you have to do is listen to how much better Gabe plays blast beats than our old drummer Dave,” said Bobby.
“It’s pretty much playing as fast as you can play on everything at once,” said Gabe. “I’m doing 16ths on the kick drum and on the snare drum, and that varies with what I’m doing with my right hand and the cymbal.” To talk to him is to discover the group’s ears are tuned differently than yours and mine. Their whole lives have unfolded within the confines of a short-attention-span culture. Post-literate, raised on hardcore punk and Internet porn, they simply have a greater capacity to comprehend this stuff.
“Look, I grew up listening to metal and punk,” said Gabe. “Black Flag and shit like that, and then of course the Sex Pistols. For me that was the fucking basics. And then I got into metal. I bought whatever the fucking heshers at school wore on their T-shirts — Iron Maiden and Ozzy and all that stupid shit. Finally came Crossed Out, who were just this hard shit — totally aggressive, like metal with totally punk ethics. It blew my fucking mind. I was just like, â€˜Dude, I can finally have all of my favorite musics in one.’â€œ
“You have to realize all this music exists on a continuum,” said Bobby.
Gabe jumped in. “You know, like Carcass would be the Led Zeppelin of death metal. And Deicide . . .”
“Deicide is the Beatles of death metal,” said Bobby. “Cannibal Corpse is the Rolling Stones. They’re the bad boys of death metal. Their lyrics are the worst, the most sexist . . .”
“That’s true,” said Gabe. “Every song is about some lady getting murdered. Or raped and murdered.”
“â€˜Entrails ripped from a virgin’s cunt,’â€œ said Bobby, quoting a lyric. “It’s the most horrible thing you could think of.”
“Yeah, it’s the worst,” said Gabe, with a dark laugh. “It sucks. At the time I first heard them I was all like, â€˜Dude, this band’s rad,’ and then I fuckin’ read the lyrics and I’m like, â€˜Oh my god, this sucks.’ I love this music and I hate the words.”
Here are the lyrics to the Locust’s song “Skin Graft at Seventy-Five Miles Per Hour,” reprinted in their entirety:
Carpentry isn’t overrated but the human trash that builds larger examples of non-human garbage definitely run in the realm of expendability. Suicide is not a vice, it’s a virtue and should be regarded as such like lying and masturbation
“Hi, I’m from the San Diego area, and we’re looking for people interested in art and political action,” said a skinny girl onstage, moments before the Locust started their Tijuana sets. All four of the members were poised and in costume, but JP wanted to cede a moment to this speaker before they played. She was a member of San Diego’s S/he Collective. The TJ crowd was a very young admixture of political punks, hesher burnouts, grindcore disasters and the merely curious; uninterested in collective action, they began to drown her out.
“Great White! Great White!” screamed a blond guy in a Misfits T-shirt.
“Hey you! Yeah you, asshole longhair,” said JP, addressing the heckler. “You don’t have to yell while someone is saying something important. I was hoping we could be a progressive musical community here.” The blond heckler yelled another epithet. JP replied, “Actually, I think the consensus here is that you are the asshole.”
Then gravity kicked in, atoms and tiny diamonds. If nothing else, a concert by the Locust is a feat of athletic bravado unlike any other. JP played bass, and the sound he made was a spastic lurch, his hands dancing and beating up and down the neck as if he wasn’t articulating discrete notes but battering them out, like you’d use a crowbar to smash a face. He bent over the microphone, protectively, as if someone might steal it. When he backed off, he did a little flourish, as if he were cumming into his own hand.
The drums were like lines of dialogue, clearly delineated bursts five seconds long. When most drummers play, they look like they have some flex in their arms, for drum rolls and such. Theoretically, getting into the beat is a matter of give and feel, and the drums are in tune with the rhythms of a human heart. Apparently, Gabe doesn’t have time for that shit, muscling through each 16th note like he was laying down a punch. Halfway through the set — that is, after 10 minutes — he took off his top. His body was steaming, and he looked completely exhausted, like a burnt-out high school athlete after an hour of wind sprints. There was a carpet under his kit, and he kept lifting the mask up over his mouth to hock huge loogies onto it.
Joey’s keyboards and synths filled in space with sadism. I haven’t told you much about Joey, even though he was the first member I met back at Gurewitz’s place. Joey is gothic and intense, has a medium squeaky voice, and looks a bit like a young Robert De Niro. He’s friendly enough, but there is something of the lurker in him. When his synth began to grind out sounds — more often static than notes — I realized he was probably only with the band so he could conduct research on fresh ears.
I cannot even imagine what Bobby’s guitar was doing, but when I was a teen, and played Dungeons and Dragons, I remember there was a weapon you could acquire called a Vorpal Sword. It was very powerful, and I believe it punched holes into other dimensions. Bobby imitated the sound it would make.
“I’m going to fucking kick your ass, faggot!” yelled the heckler at the next break.
“Fine, you want to kick my ass, you can come and kick it later,” said JP.
Tilly’s is first and foremost a Mexican restaurant, and concerts there are highly improvised affairs. The venue was jerry-rigged for sound, and at the moment, the PA had cut out.
“Shut up and play!” said the heckler, as the band tried to figure out what was wrong.
“Ah-ha, our equipment isn’t working, asshole. That one was almost as dumb as calling us fags.”
“Great White!” yelled another audience member, picking up the heckler’s favorite riff.
“Ha-ha-ha, fuckhead,” said JP, “we heard that one already.”
Atoms and tiny diamonds. For 40 seconds we are frozen; in the breaks between songs we are released. At one such break, a guy who’d been held aloft by the crowd landed on his head at the corner of the stage, hitting hard, his neck bending into untoward angles.
“You have no timing,” said JP. “The band wasn’t even playing!”
“I’ll say something really crazy right now,” Gurewitz told me. “It wouldn’t surprise me if the Locust’s new record sold a million copies, because I think they’re revolutionary — the greatest, most interesting thing since the Ramones or the Sex Pistols first started, or since Brian Eno began experimenting with ambient music and producing Devo. But that’s not why I signed them. They’re way ahead of their time, way closer to Captain Beefheart than Napalm Death — and the record might do nothing.”
I ran into JP after the Tijuana show. He was hiding by the van because the heckler was talking shit in front of the 7-Eleven, broadcasting his desire to find JP and kick his ass. JP asked that I leave that out of this story. The band hate the fact that violence is central to their reputation. They’ve toured nonstop for years, playing literally hundreds of shows, and on every excursion their tires have been slashed at least once. A year ago, during a particularly bad patch of shows in the Deep South, the headlights of the group’s van were punched out by skinheads, and they took to carrying Mace onstage, latched to their outfits like an item on Batman’s utility belt.
The band just want to play. And JP was indifferent to Gurewitz’s projections.
“It’s odd and gratifying to see hundreds of people at our shows, and to see what we’re doing now getting mainstream attention, but it’s very strange, because I don’t even consider myself a musician. I consider myself an artist. When we’re in the studio creating these things, we’re not doing chord progressions. We’re concerned with making the most interesting 45 seconds possible. The reason records and shows are the form my art takes is because I believe music is the only effective form of communication anymore.
“Look, right now I gotta go,” he said. “All I’ve eaten today are chips and ramen. I’m hungry and there’s stuff to do, and I don’t really drink beer. I’m always the one driving, and I’m always worried about setting up and selling the merch.”
I stared for a second at JP’s tattoos. Full sleeves cover both arms. There is an image of an invisible man with electricity radiating out from the surface of his skin, and next to that, a half-splattered bug.
“You think those are good,” he said, “you should look at this one.” He pulled down his lip and showed me the underside. There, touching his gums and teeth, were the letters in black ink: “PUNK.”
BRANCHES AND ROOTS OF BRUTALITY: A connoisseur’s guide to extreme metal and punk
There’s a lot of rock that can justifiably be called “hard,” but few bands can claim to be both hard and interesting. Many groups gladly pigeonhole themselves as grindcore, speed metal, death metal, black metal, hardcore, etc. The following records are something else entirely:
Slayer: Reign in Blood (American, 1986)
Rick Rubin helmed essential albums by Johnny Cash and Run-DMC, but he cites this as his favorite producer credit. It’s the Sgt. Pepper’s of death/speed metal: While it didn’t invent a new genre, it did open entirely new vistas of sound.
Napalm Death: Scum (Earache, 1987)
The debut from Ipswich, England’s godfathers of grindcore, and the only one recorded with the initial lineup (mostly) intact. Hear drummer Mick Harris invent the blast beat.
Godflesh: Pure (Earache, 1992)
Original Napalm Death guitarist Justin Broadrick went on to mastermind this more “artistic” union of metal and industrial, introducing drum machines, breakbeats and hip-hop elements to extreme rock. This is grindcore with a creepy, mechanical twitch.
Mr. Bungle: Disco Volante (Warner Bros., 1995)
A diuretic for intellectually constipated metalheads. Eureka, California’s Mike Patton formed this sonically scattered band after finding stardom as Faith No More’s vocalist. Their first record was produced by downtown NYC jazzbo John Zorn, and the experience probably inspired this album’s virtuosic playing.
System of a Down: Toxicity (American/Sony, 2001)
Yes, this Los Angeles quartet gained renown along with the nu-metal wave, but their 2001 disc is equally admired by angsty 13-year-olds and “screamo” aficionados. Another Rick Rubin production.
Orthrelm: Asristir Vieldriox (Troubleman Unlimited, 2002)
You get 99 songs in 12 minutes. This prolific drum/guitar duo exists at the nexus of prog-rock, free jazz and extreme metal. Mick Barr’s guitar tangles are so dense, he makes the Locust’s Bobby Bray sound like James Taylor.
Originally published in LA Weekly on September 18, 2003.