Friday, January 13, 2012

I Was A Teenage Guitar Player

I guess I'm primarily known as a drummer at this point. I do play them. I like to play them really fast most of the time. That's just what I do. It's what I like and what I want to hear. But I also play guitar. It was my first instrument. Don't hold it against me. I know the guitar has lost a lot of respect as an instrument over the course of the last few decades, but bear with me for a moment . . . the tool is generally not the problem, but rather, what one does with it.

I started playing guitar when I was about 9 years old. I had a plastic KISS guitar at one point and I remember being in my room with it, trying to figure out some way to notate licks. This was pretty cute since I had no concept of tuning, melody, rhythm, notation or anything else useful in actually accomplishing this task. It's hazy, but for all I know, I just drew some weird, random dots on a blank page and thought somehow this might help me play the same thing again some day. I desired musical form, but obviously it didn't really work out at the time.

Soon after, my parents gave me a crappy little acoustic guitar as a Christmas present. I started taking a few  lessons (in a group setting with a ton of other kids) which focused on learning the most basic chord forms possible. You know, like the kinds of dumb major chords generic folkies play at coffeehouses? Chords like "G", "C" and "D" which utilize most or all of the strings on the guitar. These chords basically enable you to play shitty songs like "Louie Louie" or "Wild Thing". I knew something wasn't right with this method and quickly blew off the klutzy kiddie khord klatch, winging it on my own. I didn't like stupid-ass songs like "Big Rock Candy Mountain" and "On Top of Old Smokey" anyhow.

By age 11, I was beginning to branch out into punk rock and other stuff that didn't get played on the radio. A friend of mine had one of those older brothers who listened to weird stuff like the Ramones, New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Warren Zevon and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. As a result, I was into "Love Stinks" by the J. Geils Band WAAAY before "The Wedding Singer" busted it open to all the poseurs. It was obvious that my tastes were beginning to head towards pure idiosyncrasy. My discoveries were governed by my gut, divorced from social conventions and peer approval. If it sounded good, I was into it. I was starting to become very opinionated about what was "good" and "bad" musically. For some reason I wanted my music increasingly weirder in quality and I didn't care who agreed. This attitude would never change.

Like many of my generation, I was mesmerized by the genesis of MTV.  In those awesome early rock videos, something seemed preternaturally cool about bass players. Maybe it was the low, gutteral sound of the instrument or maybe it was how cool John Taylor from Duran Duran looked in the "Planet Earth" video. I decided I wanted to play bass. My parents came to me with an ultimatum: if I took lessons and actually learned the thing, they would get me a bass guitar. We cut the deal, and they bought me some cheap, short-scale bass small enough for my tiny kiddie paws.

At my first lesson, the teacher handed me a pick, a suggestion met with dismay from me. Part of the appeal was that stupid way the MTV bass players draped their hands over the thing and plucked the strings with their fingers. She said, "Well, if you're going to learn the bass my way, you will play with a pick." At the time I couldn't see the cause and effect, but I'm glad I did learn picking. I now possess a demonically fast right hand I certainly wouldn't have had otherwise. Initially I struggled with the concept of reading music. The pitches and rhythms just didn't make sense to me. I got so frustrated early on, that I started crying and threatening to give up. Luckily my parents forced me to continue. I kept grinding away at my studies.

That year I acquired a tacky little electronic pickup which I slapped on my old acoustic guitar. I quickly discovered feedback and the pleasures of free improvisation. Now, I had no clue that improvisation was an idiom or that anybody else in the world did this stuff professionally or otherwise, but I would spend a lot of time in my room feeding the guitar back through my small-wattage Sears tube amp. I loved the distortion and the density of the surging sound. I was basically becoming addicted to noise(making). I began fashioning crudely overdubbed recordings by building up successive tracks, bouncing from one tape recorder to another, resulting in the lowest fidelity possible.

After a couple of years, I had gained a bit of skill playing and I branched out to jamming with some drummer friend of a friend. We were basically free improvising; what we did had very little form. Essentially I would start with some little riff I codged from whatever music I was working on in my lessons and then we would just branch off from there and make a lot of racket. I remember being plugged directly into this kid's parents' stereo, which was pushed far past the edge of pure fuzz. It's probably sounded like an extremely remedial version of Ruins or something! We didn't know what the hell we were doing, but we knew we wanted to play fast, loud and crazy. Hell, we may have only jammed once, but I was inspired to name the group "Blue Flame" and I even drew a crude logo. We never played together again but this band thing was something I definitely wanted to pursue.

Chernobyl Chyldren, 1986. Left to right: Bob Belt, Alex Hamilton, Erik Byrne, Vince Bucci, Weasel Walter and a little pal.
I joined my first "real" band in 1986, towards the end of the first wave of U.S. Hardcore. During that era my sense of individuality and contrariness had come full bloom and I was more than ready to express my alienation from the status quo, loudly and defiantly. Era-appropriate, the group was tagged Chernobyl Chyldren and we played grinding punk trash. My dad made me a goofy looking bass I designed - sort of like a Gibson Thunderbird but more lopsided - out of spare parts. I ran the thing through a DeArmond Square Wave Generator distortion pedal into my trusty Sears tube amp. We played short songs made of two or three chords and sang about the kind of stuff rebellious, cynical teenagers might sing about in the mid-Eighties: you know - suicide, masturbation, zombies. The good stuff.

By Spring 1987, Chernobyl Chyldren had dissipated, and a scaled-down trio version called Javelin Bats emerged from the ruins. We were influenced pretty heavily by No Wave and did some covers of Contortions, 8-Eyed Spy, Bad Brains and Flipper tunes in addition to our own noisy, cacophonous originals. At this point in time I was playing a crappy Fender Stratocaster copy in addition to my homemade bass. The three of us traded instruments on every song and that was the beginning of my career as a drummer, despite the fact that my rhythm sucked and everyone told me so as often as they could. 

By 1988, I had saved enough money from my part-time job as a library page to buy a Tascam Porta One four-track cassette recorder and blew off trying to play in bands, opting to spend time creating my own little mini-symphonies through overdubbing. I was into Free Jazz and improvisation, No Wave and all kinds of weird stuff nobody else around seemed to get, so, I would just cook up my own hermetically sealed music down in the basement for my own pleasure and comfort. I would a lot of spend time emulating my favorite guitarists: Arto Lindsay, Greg Ginn, Sonny Sharrock, Lydia Lunch, Bern Nix, Derek Bailey, Pete Cosey, Henry Kaiser. Ultimately the distillation of these players' disparate approaches, tempered by my crude lack of technique, added up to a personal sound that I've never really been able to shrug off. I'm no virtuoso, but I definitely sound like me. Some of the finer moments from my adolescent solo recording experiments can be heard on the Savage Land Records CD "Early Recordings 1988-1991". Oddly, I believe most of it stands up pretty well. It's all very raw, but the core ideals of my body of work were fully there from the beginning.

In 1990, I moved to Chicago, ostensibly to go to college. The first ugEXPLODE Records release was tracked on New Year's Eve 1990/1991 featuring an overdubbed duet with myself on guitar and drums. I sold dozens of cassettes of that cacophonous tape in the day, but never really thought to reissue it. By late 1991, The Flying Luttenbachers had formed, with myself on drums. Drumming would continue to be my main instrumental focus for years by default - it seemed drummers with my sensibilities were hard to find, so I always had opportunities to focus on that role. By 1993, in addition to the Luttenbachers and various ad hoc improvisational meetings, I was playing bass in a Motley Crue tribute band called 2 Fast 4 Love, whose repertoire consisted solely of that group's debut album played in order, plus an encore of "Shout At The Devil" and "Looks That Kill". 2F4L also included then-Luttenbachers guitarist Dylan Posa. The four of us were equally obsessed and committed to replicating the spazzy, coked-out vibe of early Crue to the fullest. I learned those basslines note for note and copied Nikki Sixx's outfit from the "Live Wire" video on a shoestring budget. A funny clip of us improvising an interview appeared in the 2000 tribute band documentary "Tributary" by auteur Russ Forster. I saw no contradiction bewteen playing glam metal and doing modernist improvised music at the same time. I still don't.

In 1994, I briefly joined the band Cornelius Gomez on bass guitar. The group, who had a 7" single out on the mythic Bulb Records label, originally hailed from Michigan and was led by the highly contrary guitarist Ricky Sutton. When Ricky came to town, he recruited me on bass (an '80s Japanese Fender Squire P-bass with the frets ripped out) and Math multi-instrumentalist Jodie Mecanic on drums to back him up for a spell before the two of them would peel off without me and form Duotron. The three of us also appeared once in the original full-band lineup of Quintron, before the fourth member would adopt that name for his own persona and go solo. A videotape of this debut Quintron gig with an opening set by Cornelius Gomez exists in my archives.
Bobby Conn band on tour 1998. left to right: Monica BouBou, Bobby Conn, Cho-Yun Li, Weasel Walter (bass), Coldman Walker.
During the summer of '94, I was also slinging my axe in several highly camp units, namely Vanilla and Vagiant. Vanilla was an extrapolation of the band Strawberry, a Wicker Park-based unit centered around three creative geniuses known as Cho-Yun Li, Eugene "XXX" Pomeroy and Jesus Maria. The first time I laid eyes on the miracle of Strawberry was Halloween 1993. They looked insane and sounded even crazier, a squalid melange of glam/punk/noise comprised of shambolically inept singing and playing over hyperactive backing/rhythm tracks. It was love at first sight. I immediately became the band's "roadie" and confidante, shoehorning myself into the complex, surreal mythos the whole band ate and breathed.  In June '94 I made my first appearance with them under the pseudonym "Johnny Holocaust", ripping scathing leads from my dayglo painted '65 Fender Mustang.  We would play many loud, chaotic gigs over the next few years to very few people. We were extremely self-satisfied in our efforts and would inevitably return home after a gig to stay up all night watching the videotape of the performance repeatedly.




Vagiant was formed in the same period. Initially it was a concept band vaguely based off of the legendary synth-punk combo Nervous Gender with a twist: we were death metal influenced aliens coming to earth to destroy the human race with rock and roll. The first gig by the band in April '94 featured myself on Casio SK-1, issuing distorted quasi-riffs over drum machine backing while lead singer A. Fukkir (a.k.a. Nondor Nevai) declared genocidal mottos over the top. It was a mess, but a funny one. By our second gig, I had ditched the synth for a wall of guitar fuzz, looking for a more visceral personal reward. Nondor would have preferred to keep the keyboard, but my rockist tendancies won out. It's pretty tough to wail on a Casio.  We played four gigs total (including one in Madison that was a hilarious disaster) and recorded some basic tracks for an album, but eventually fizzled out. Two videos of the group existed: a tape of the first gig is currently buried in the archives of the late former Luttenbacher Bill Pisarri; and the other one, documenting the second gig, is lost. I finished the rough mixes in 2000 and released the Vagiant album in an extremely limited capacity.

Vanilla eked on through the fall of 1995. I really liked what we were doing, but it just didn't click with anybody but us. We were into wearing the most outrageous, disgusting outfits we could individually scare up, including stuff off the ground.  We were extremely loud and tasteless, the entire frontline trading off harrowing vocals at the absolute edge of our lung capacities. We did a lot of private photo sessions and made gigantic fliers out of the images which we would paste up all over the neighborhood, back when you could actually get away with postering still. We tracked a full-length album in March 1995, from which an extremely limited 7" single of two songs barely emerged. I don't remember exactly why we packed it in, but the arson of our rehearsal space sure didn't help matters. Vanilla died as we lived - in a blaze of unhinged insanity and chaos. Almost every gig by the band was videotaped, but these tapes are currently presumed missing. I have a few grainy VHS dubs of what I consider some of the lesser performances.




After I ditched the original lineup of the Flying Luttenbachers in fall 1994, I did a string of solo shows under the band name, featuring myself playing guitar and saxophone over overdubbed backing tracks. It was scrappy, but reflected the more metal/noise influenced direction I intended to move the project towards. Another full band line-up came together in mid-1995 which eventually recorded the pivotal "Revenge" and "Gods of Chaos" albums.

Not long before the last Vanilla show in October 1995, I had formed Lake Of Dracula with Marlon Magas from Couch and Heather M. of the Scissor Girls. My guitar stylings in this group were in a more no-wave vein than most of the previous units. I strictly avoided bar chord cliches and went for simplistic, angular modernism. We had a good two year run and made a classic full-length LP as well as playing a bunch of wild, memorable shows and touring the West Coast in 1997 before we broke up.



Lake Of Dracula, Fireside Bowl, Chicago. September 24, 1996.


A joke band I played guitar with starting in late '95 was a unit called The Cowboys, featuring Devil Bell Hippies genius Martin Billheimer on vocals. Our modus operandi was to appear to be the most inept classic rock cover band of all time. Our rhythm track was a metronome, feebily mic'd through the house p.a. system. I played the songs as poorly and as mock-nervously as I could, executing the exact same lame beginner blues-scale guitar solo in the middle of every tune. Martin barely knew the words to most of the songs, so he would stumble along until the choruses kicked in. It was laughably pathetic and we tried our hardest to sell it as sincere. Our second and last gig was done under a true "preaching to the unconverted" situation: on a bill with four macho rockabilly bands. Ha ha ha. They hated us (predictably) and wanted to KILL us. Martin actually got scared and bailed, so I started crying on stage, which made the greasers actually pity us! It was all an act and I remember the acute pain of holding in my laughter when we played those sets.

In 1996, I started playing some guitar in Bobby Conn's band. I had already done time in his ranks on drums and bass, so I guess this instrument was next! The first time, I was playing wiry, atonal "funk" guitar during the set we had devised. We got bored of that and briefly transformed into a fake "hardcore" band called Tha'bortions, another excursion into jokey method-acting. Essentially we came up with a bunch of titles and two chord songs, which Bobby would improvise agitprop gibberish over before the whole thing came to a grinding halt. It was a biting parody of the generic "political" punk bands of the time and it was well-received by the crowd. I played guitar on the tracks "United Nations" and "White Bread" on Bobby's second album "Rise Up" and toured the U.S. and Europe with him on bass guitar during 1998.

In 1997, Dylan Posa, Scott Gibbons (a.k.a. Eugene from Strawberry) and I embarked on a two-year-long "reinactment" of classic UK New Wave group Adam and the Ants' chronology. What this entailed was replicating the setlists, personnel changes and recording sessions of the original band twenty years to the date as long as we could stand to do it. We looked to scummy bootlegs for our source material, learning lots of tunes which never made it to official Ants releases. For a while I was the guitarist in this project, but after a spell, it became clear the role of drummer was on me, since I was the only person who cared enough to be detail-oriented in the transcription of killer Ants drummer Dave Barbarossa's creative fills. We wound up issuing two faux "Peel Sessions" on the correct dates as well as re-recording and reissuing the band's first single in the proper time frame. As it dragged on, the joke became time-consuming and less and less well-attended, so I finally called it quits after a few dozen gigs. Most people wouldn't have even recognized much of the material we played in the band because our obscure setlists predated almost all of the songs that made up their first album! Every show we played was video taped.

In 1998, I played a live gig on bass with Nondor's black metal band Aborted Christ Childe. I also laid down some tracks on a 2001 ACC recording session which resulted in a hitherto unissued single.

In June 1998, my joke-rock guitar jones came roaring back when I founded the illustrious full-band atonal karaoke disaster known as The Chicago Sound with U.S. Maple guitarist Todd Rittmann and some of the guys in and around the long-running "comedy grind" combo 7000 Dying Rats. The idea was that we would get really wasted and revel in our FM radio roots by playing no-tuning-allowed "covers" of classic rock songs while listening to the originals, blasting almost incoherently through the stage monitors. Everybody in the band just ate it up and over the years our ranks grew to the point where we had numerous lead singers as well as two entire drum kits on stage. There's something inherently hilarious about hearing familiar music slaughtered so heinously which resonates with people. I made a shambolic solo cover of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" for a 2001 compilation album on Three One G Records and that track was wildly popular. I think the Chicago Sound (as well as the later franchises The San Francisco Sound and The Pittsburgh Sound) predated the St. Sanders "shred" video Youtube trend in a healthy way.  The Chicago Sound did a gig just a few years ago and I'd love to start a New York chapter, but it's a little tough to get a decent gig here where we can really fuck people up . . .



The Chicago Sound, Fireside Bowl, Chicago, January 15, 2003.


I made brief re-appearances with both 2 Fast 4 Love and Strawberry on bass and guitar in mid-1999. That era was pretty tough for me personally and musically. I was really flailing around and nothing was seeming to work out too well in my life. I tried to start a harsh no wave band called 20,000,000 Volts in October 1999, but it didn't work out. Even though I had stalwarts Bobby Conn on guitar and erstwhile local avant percussionist Michael Zerang manning the drums, it just didn't pan out. Later that month I got in the van with the iconoclastic "Free Glam" lineup of To Live and Shave in L.A. featuring Tom Smith, Rat Bastard, Nondor Nevai and Misty Martinez, and the five of us steadily decimated a string of Midwest and East Coast cities. On that tour, my look had coalesced into a sort of Richie Stotts/DeNiro "Taxi Driver" blue mohican with a Doc Savage jodphurs/ripped shirt combo, resulting in maximum apocalypse stylishness. I mutilated my cheap 12-string electric and fretless bass on the tour as well as honking through a C-Melody sax and operating the smoke machine. The band was a cabal of pure uncontrolled mayhem. We got on stage each night and just tore it up. The final night of the jaunt at the Cooler in NYC was particularly torrid, and the various cognoscenti who were there left with an indelible impression. In bizarre twist of fate, the same unit, minus singer Tom Smith, toured the East Coast in August 2000 under the intentionally misleading nomer To Live and Shave in L.A. 2, causing prickly outrage in certain subterranean circles. Eventually a CD under the name of the rebel group featuring recordings from both the 1999 and 2000 tours emerged, radically re-shaped/re-channelled/re-edited by myself.



To Live and Shave in L.A., 6 ODUM, Chicago, October 22, 1999.


Due to extenuating circumstances, I wound up on the road alone as The Flying Luttenbachers during October 2002. Essentially I was performing the most recent live set solo on bass guitar, saxophone and electronics over backing tracks. This one-man Luttenbachers phase resulted in the rigorous, hypercomplex 2003 album "Systems Emerge From Complete Disorder". At the time, I was practicing my parts about four hours a day to prepare for the shows. It was probably the most sustained, intense practicing I had ever done in my life. I'm glad I did it. I remember playing a Troubleman Unlimited CMJ bill at North Six in Brooklyn and looking down to see Glenn Branca headbanging in the front row.  I was going nuts, triggering the smoke machine and jumping around like a madman while playing some of the most technically involved music I have ever attempted like it was good old rock and roll. Sometimes practice does make perfect.



The Flying Luttenbachers: "kkringg number one", Fireside Bowl, Chicago, November 8, 2002


I was busy as ever when I made the transition from Chicago to the Bay Area in 2003. I focused on XBXRX and The Flying Luttenbachers as well as stints with Curse of the Birthmark, Murder Murder, Total Shutdown, Errase Errata and others. My public guitar playing took a backseat for a long time at that point. I did formulate the 2004 Luttenbachers album "The Void" on guitar in my office before handing the demos off to Ed Rodriguez and Mike Green to essentially learn the material note-for-note. In 2006, I founded Cellular Chaos as a sort of "guitar fantasy" band. I had recently started playing drums in free improvised settings again, but the guitar bug eventually bit me and I envisioned the group as a freaky backup unit for my angular, disjointed wailings. We did a few gigs, but the band didn't really gel, so I put it to rest until I moved to New York in December 2009. The rest of the story is in progress as we speak. Cellular Chaos circa 2012 is fairly orderly and song-oriented at this point. I now use my guitar chops for structural purposes as opposed to entropy in the band now. Before I hit the Big Apple, I also skronked around with Mark E. Miller under the Toy Killers tag a handful of times and played some guitar on a William Hooker live album.




Rat Bastard Experience at the Stone, NYC - August 12, 2011. "Sonic Youth Afterparty"


When I got to New York, I wound up intermittently adding some 6-string accents to Talibam!'s live sets. It seems like if I merely show up to one of their gigs, they pretty much force me to come on stage and play. Celluar Chaos version 2 was up and running in embryonic mode by January 2010. At one point I stopped playing drums in the Marc Edwards/Weasel Walter Group and took up the bass chair, which I remain in to this day. Every now and then I perform on guitar with Rat Bastard when he's in town and I recently started an improv/prog unit with a couple of guys called Mangulator, which I play gnarly 6-string fretless bass in.

So there you have it. The next time you hear that I play guitar, don't act so surprised. Yes, I play the drums a lot, but now you know my tedious labyrinthine, hyperactive history as a primo axe slinger.

1 comment:

Ope Books said...

Ah, I'm trying to come up with a good name for the beginnings of that scene you were part of in Chicago: Math, Conn, Scissor Girls, Dot Dot Dot, Duotron, LOD, Maple,Cheer Accident, Quintron, Luttenbachers, and few more. Although I know a lot more bands were involved, only a handful really mattered. We all know that this scene is called "Chicago No Wave". And it's better to be called that then say: Chicago Grunge or Chicago Punk, God forbid! Anyway, I new name is called for or would greatly help document the scene; which to me is good as NYC No Wave.