I'm standing on the Pacific Beach boardwalk on a crowded Saturday, beautiful boys and girls swarming by in a bronze parade of flesh. Armed with a portable CD player, I sequester 10 guinea pigs under the guise of market research (“I'm not with the band—you can tell me honestly”).
I simply ask each person to listen to the song I have selected and give pure, unadulterated feedback. All told three men and seven women (gender emphasis by design, as will be explained later) checked in on “Late for a Date with a Pile of Atoms in the Water Closet,” a 45-second song from Plague Soundscapes, the new album by local band The Locust.
Six out of 10 listened to the entire song. One lasted about 15 seconds, tearing off the headphones with the perplexed grimace of someone who's just been insulted. “Sorry. That's really, really bad,” she said and walked away.
One man (who, it should be noted, revealed himself to be a musician) was semi-complimentary. “I can see what they're trying to do, but most people won't get it,” he said. “But if I wanted to piss off my roommates, I would definitely play this record.”
Granted, this is Pacific Beach, home to the mainstream culture of purchasable identities. But even in underground music circles, this bipolar response to The Locust is typical-you either love 'em or run out the door holding your ears, shouting, “Please, God, make it stop!” Without a heavy amount of prescription drugs, it is almost impossible not to have a visceral, intense response to their music.
And Plague Soundscapes, released on the eclectic outsider label, Anti- (Tom Waits, Merle Haggard, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds), is set to be the largest release by a San Diego punk band in 2003.
Is it punk?
The Locust like to call it “noise terrorism.”
Nonplussed greetings from feeble vocab boy
At South-by-Southwest in 2001, The Locust was one of the music festival's biggest attractions. With large, insectile goggles obscuring their faces-the Locust are rarely seen onstage without some sort of mask-the band played its brand of mental patient grindcore-fast, intense seizures of noise. The vocals sounded like desperate transmissions from a cesspool of tortured souls. Disjointed keyboard melodies assaulted from the left, seemingly random guitar spurts attacked from the right. No song lasted longer than one minute.
In the back of the bar, I found myself screaming repeatedly, “You suck!”
After all, such violent music couldn't be made with the goal of passive applause, could it? So I answered their sonic assaults with my own, figuring that was the participatory reaction this sort of music-as-performance-art demanded.
Sitting in their small practice room at Universal Sound behind the Sports Arena, three of the four Locust members-drummer Gabe Serbian, bassist-vocalist Justin Pearson and keyboardist Bobby Bray-try to understand their haters.
“I think people realize that we're toying around with this existence and how weird everything is and pushing every button at once,” Bray explains. “So people are trying to respond to that by pushing all of our buttons all at once. It's kind of counterproductive.”
“You have critics saying it's crap,” explains the shy, unassuming Pearson, with one arm sleeved in tattoos. “I would really like to look at those people's music collection. They're probably going to have all the blinks and the Rancids and stuff in there, and that's what punk is to them.”
Later, at home, I looked at my rather large collection of Rancid albums, realizing they had gotten much more play than my copy of Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. I realized that I was in no way as forward-thinking as Brett Gurewitz, the Bad Religion guitarist and owner of Epitaph Records who, after the Locust's South by Southwest performance, signed the band to a record deal.
“At that point, it was so strange. Our friends' bands-like Black Dice-were getting like all this crazy attention. And you want to talk about a fucked-up band musically, I think they're weirder than the Locust,” Pearson explains. “Or like the Blood Brothers. Even the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.... Before Epitaph approached us, there was interest from London-Sire and some other crappy major label.
“But Epitaph's an independent label, and [Brett] wasn't having his PR people contact us. He just came up to us and said, ‘I love your band.' And we went from there.”
Madness runs deep among tortured trout
“[Our music] fits the world we live in. It's fast-paced and aggressive and it's totally fitting for current situations that we're dealing with-the Internet and the media. Everything's like-” Pearson says, snapping his fingers three time in rapid succession. “It makes sense. To me it does, at least.”
In a time when information dispersal has become so haphazardly omnipresent-a billboard on the roadside, news from your car stereo, a logo on a friend's t-shirt-that filtering out meaningful messages is almost impossible, The Locust's disjointed rhythms and stuttering, spasmodic melodies could be the soundtrack of our lives. Or, extending the metaphor inherent in their name, the soundtrack for the Armageddon.
Past artists have laid similar zigzagging roads, attempting to deconstruct the rote formula of western melody. Captain Beefheart is a prime example-his Trout Mask Replica is so schizophrenic that it takes a musicologist to identify the genre and melody shifts. In jazz, it was John Zorn, who, with albums like Torture Garden, pushed every conceivable combination of noise and composed solely by free association. Often, it seems, such musicians were working counter-intuitively.
“We'll get a rough skeleton of a song and we'll talk about, ‘How are we going to get it to where people won't be predicting that to happen? Let's cut it short or make it longer or slow down this one piece,'” Pearson explains. “Whatever we can do to make it trickier.”
“For our own amusement,” Bray adds.
Return the gender roles you got for Hanukkah
Aggressive music like hardcore and punk has long been the domain of extreme machismo. Bands have done little to combat that-playing up to the throngs of testosterone-addled boys that make up their fan base. The Locust, on the other hand, are breaking that unspoken code that violent music equals predatory maleness.
The Locust themselves have gone so far as to call their music “homoerotic.”
“We try to be non-gender specific,” Pearson explains. “I think that a lot of aggressive music is targeted [to] and enjoyed more by men. I'd rather avoid that and have women feel more comfortable and partake in the listening and the viewing of us playing a show. It's for everyone.
“I think that when you're up there acting all tough, you're putting off this aura of testosterone-fueled energy, where we avoid that. We can go tour with [female groups] Erase Errata or Bratmobile and everyone's comfortable. Even the audience is comfortable, and that's a great feeling. It's half the population. I don't want to only appeal to half the population.
“It's a turn off. I mean, we're all men sitting here talking about this issue, but I think if you were a woman, every day of your life you're walking out in public and getting cat-called or you look at every single billboard and it's got women with big boobs. And when she can go and enjoy music that's not putting off this macho attitude, it's a welcoming thing. Because over time, a majority of aggressive music has been driven by male machoness. Then if we can start getting aggressive bands that don't deal with that, then that's great.”
Insignificance confuses lesser beings
Many bands have accused The Locust of being sluts to fashion, which, their critics argue, proves they are nothing more than a gimmick. Some have called it “fashion core.”
A fashion designer friend created their current stage uniforms-green, guerrilla-like fatigues and hoods with black mesh around the eyes and mouth. In the past, they wore nothing but the aforementioned goggles and diapers during shows. Last year, Pearson appeared in a summer swimsuit photo spread for the fashion and culture magazine Paper. In the photo, he was sucking on a Popsicle and wearing nothing but a camouflage bikini bottom.
Yet Pearson argues that their military fatigues are just the visual representation of their sci-fi noise terrorism. Plus, he says, they can't be bought at your favorite boutique.
“When you look at a band and you think they're fashionable, you can go buy their Levi jeans or their designer shoes. You look at us and go, ‘What the fuck is that?' and you can't do anything about it,” he says. “It just adds to the aesthetics of the music, but the only thing you can do about it is actually buy the music, not buy the same kind of t-shirts or getting similar hairstyles that we've got.”
Pearson thinks that criticism of their fashion is hypocritical. Everyone-from punks to hardcore kids to Berkeley's infamous Naked Man-is fashion conscious. The pot should check itself out before reproaching the kettle.
“A lot of that criticism comes from these kids in the hardcore community who, I think, all have a fashion sense,” he explains. “They all have the same hairstyles and wear spiked belts with hooded sweatshirts with the band's name silk screened on 'em. Even being a slob, or dressing like you don't give a shit is still a fashion.”
“Even if you're naked, it's a fashion statement,” Bray adds.
The other materialistic qualm critics take with The Locust is their multitude of merchandise. While most bands are sheepish about hawking merchandise and usually stick with CDs and a simple t-shirt, The Locust have become regular branding machines, producing everything from signature belt buckles to compact mirrors.
“It's art,” Pearson explains. “We create the stuff, and we put thought and effort into it. Not like every other band selling the $24 one-color shirts at the Sports Arena. We have stuff that's interesting. Sometimes its silly.”
“We're very much fans of the absurd,” Bobby adds. “This whole world's absurd. Everywhere you go, everywhere you look, if you really sit and question everything, it's pretty preposterously absurd. It's so weird and strange that it leaves us to go that same distance through our merch. Like selling coke mirrors, belt buckles, soap.”
(Pearson, adamant about not advocating drug use, points out that their compact mirrors were not intentionally “coke mirrors” but admits creative uses were identified.)
The future is a short absurdist scream
Plague Soundscapes is the Locust's third full-length album. Alex Newport (At the Drive-In, The Melvins) was enlisted to handle the production. Like their live shows, the album is an abrasive exercise in surrealism that is over as fast as it begins.
Song titles include: “Recyclable Body Fluids in Human Form,” “Identity Exchange Program Rectal Return Policy” and “Earwax Halo Manufactured for the Champion in All of Us.”
“Someone's going to read a title like that and go, ‘What the fuck?' and laugh, and then they're going to read the lyrics,” Pearson explains of their absurdist titles.
“And then they'll be even more confused,” Serbian quips.
“Well, then they'll sit down and ponder it, which is good,” Pearson counters. “I'd rather do that than what Linkin Park does, where you already know what they're saying. It creates a thought process. Not only are you trying to figure out what we're playing, but you're also trying to figure out what we're saying.”
And Pearson has a lot to say: about gender roles, politics, social issues, media conglomeration, etc. Though the lyrics are often nearly as sublime as the titles, lines like “social sardines for a better tomorrow” would hit home with any overworked American.
The entire 23-song album is finished in less than 21 minutes. The longest song-the equivalent of a prog-rock epic in Locust terms-is one minute and 29 seconds.
“It's like one quick punch-done and over with,” Pearson explains. “If you look at it, you have a lot of bands that write chorus-verse, chorus-verse... over and over 40 times they're playing the same goddamn riff. Then you'll hear it on the commercial and you'll go buy the car and you'll go buy the hamburger and all the other crap that goes along with it.”
“[With us], you're forced to pay attention and that's good,” says Bray.
Though The Locust receives royalty checks for radio play, most of it is from college stations. Mainstream outlets most likely won't touch their brand of impenetrable noise. Serbian is an optimist, saying the tide might be changing. Bray guesses that companies like Clear Channel are too rigid to take a chance on the Locust.
“Some people have to take certain drugs to understand what we're doing,” Bray concludes.
And then Pearson, ever conscious of the message they're sending, clarifies. “I don't do any drugs.”