Bathed in the honest glow of a bare light bulb, I sat cross-legged on
the concrete floor of an empty basement, surrounded by a half-dozen
young people decked out in leather jackets, patched-up jeans and grimy
sneakers. They were hungrily passing around a bag of jalapeño Cheetos
and swapping cigarettes, joking as our eardrums rang from the heavy
metal concert we’d just attended.
What began as an investigation of rumors about some kids who threw
punk rock shows in a basement they called “The Meatgrinder” had
landed me in the company of a group of fascinating individuals, and
in turn, introduced me to a true American counterculture. The current
company consists of young punk and experimental musicians who had
forgone steady jobs and “comfortable” lifestyles. Instead, they commit to
their passion of making highly marginalized music.
The lifestyle adopted by these young musicians is one that runs in almost
direct contradiction to that of most college students, myself included.
Instead of preparing for specialized careers through specific schooling,
they’ve opted for a life of relative uncertainty and financial stress for the
freedom to pursue their passions and cultivate a widely unacknowledged
musical community. It’s not music that will make you rich or famous, but
the sense of community developed and the importance of the music they
create so deeply stirs the hearts of those associated that it must be made.
It’s simply too loud to ignore.
Dissonance is a weapon. It’s a sonic device that can be wielded with precision or abandon, often times to the same effect. Sean Largey, front man for noise band Waves Crashing Piano Chords and drummer for grindcore (a genre of extreme metal) act Beard Without A Mustache, has found that a harshness of sound can express his appreciation for the rawness he associates with punk rock.“I don’t think there’s anything more punk than noise. It’s the primitive expression of what the Sex Pistols and the Ramones were trying to get across,” Largey explains. “They were like ‘Fuck you. Destroy music.’ But I don’t think that’s really what it sounded like, as much as I like them. They were more just blues-oriented rock’n’roll with a great image.”
Largey performed guest vocals for a nine-minute noise set with synth-noise band Foot and Mouth Disease (FAMD) on Record Store Day at the House of Guitars on Saturday, April 21. The performance seemed to exhibit the rawness of sound he was looking for. Backed by his friends Lawrence Patti and David Voelkl of FAMD as they generated feedback with homemade synthesizers, he began a series of screams, both viscous and vulnerable at the same time. He intertwined chants of lyrics that he had written the night before. “You disgust me! Soul mate!” His body began to thrash and stomp uncontrollably as he channeled everything he could seem to muster.
There were no pre-rehearsed dance moves or choreographed head banging here, only motion for motion’s sake. At one point, Largey even bashed himself in the head with his mic. But the instant the feedback ceased, it was as if a switch had been flipped and his charming, humorous personality returned almost instantly. I pointed out the fresh bruise blossoming on his bashed scalp, and he laughed it off. “That was a pretty tame performance compared to Wave shows,” he would joke later.
This type of on/off fury was also evident when front man Adam Kramer’s experimental hardcore band Endanger Youth performed after Largey’s. Kramer’s performance almost appeared as a challenge to what little crowd meandered around the band. The previously mild-mannered 25-year-old would stand mere inches from others’ faces, barking his strained vocals until he was red in the face. It was the kind of performance that most casual concert goers would never stand for, and most steered clear. He explained the shift in attitude when performing. “For the most part I am a pretty chill dude,” he said. “But I guess you could say I have some demons and I try to use music as an outlet for the things that frustrate me or make me sad.”
To watch Largey and Kramer perform is to witness first-hand a noticeable juxtaposition that runs through the scene; the image of incredibly friendly people making incredibly aggressive music. More than one person I met admitted to having anger management issues, yet they were all remarkably kind-hearted, especially to a stranger who wanted to write about them.
Endangered Youth bassist John Kiss offered his thoughts on why nice people would be attracted to such an aggressive style of music. “I think what attracts people to it is the sincerity of it. Our music is very moody, up and down,” says Kiss. “And that is because we are human, and have a lot of different moods, emotions and frustrations that we want to express in our music.” This was interesting to hear from Kiss, who is incredibly upbeat and charismatic. If you had to sum up the 25-year-old, “spunky” might be a good word to use. “For me personally, there’s something about his kind of music that makes me feel like a rebellious, nihilistic 16-18 year old who is pissed off at the world.”
"C'MON MAN, WE HUG HERE."
When first meeting Collin Bourne, my attempt at a handshake was rejected in exchange for an unexpected embrace. “C’mon man, we hug here,” he explains. The 23-year-old Maryland transplant and drummer for garage rockers the Results is about as jovial a young man as you’ll hope to meet, and indeed, most greetings and farewells between these friends were marked with hugs.
Perhaps the best example of the power of this kind of closeness was during Endangered Youth’s set when about eight young men huddled, arm-in-arm around Kramer and his microphone as they bounced in anticipation for the chorus of “So I’ve Been Told” to kick back in. They were an island unto themselves crammed in an aisle between Eddie Murphy and Bell Biv Devoe albums. When the song exploded back into action, the group exploded with it, like a gang of twenty-something bulls in a record shop. “It makes you feel not so alone,” Bourne says, explaining how valuable that sense of community was to him personally. Kiss agreed. “What keeps me motivated is the music, the live shows and the people you meet along the way,” he says.
And the strength of the scene extends beyond the customary hugs. It’s not uncommon for musicians to hop in and out of each other’s projects as guest performers. Largey had been asked to play with FAMD just the night before. As mutual admirers of each other’s work, Patti had attended Largey’s show with Beard Without a Mustache and asked him to sing for FAMD the next morning.
Even though the Results weren’t playing Record Store Day, Bourne found himself part of the action as he hopped behind the drums to play with costumed experimental rock band Godzilla. The decision was made with no more than 15 minutes before the performance, but Bourne, who has been playing in bands since he was 13, seemed right at home. With the short life spans of most bands and guys like Largey and Kiss pulling double duty, there seems to be a great fluidity to the way bands and performances come together. But things aren’t always that hospitable.
“I was like ‘You’ll probably hate what I’m about to do,’” Largey recalls telling the crowd at the first Waves Crashing Piano Chords show in 2008, where he was the only noise act in an all metal show. “And they did, and they broke my leg. A local metalcore singer … pushed me off stage and I tore all the ligaments in my knee,” he said. Yet despite the seemingly brutal story, he laughed during the entire telling of the tale and even directed me to a YouTube video of the incident. “It was the best show ever, because I got my point across.”
"YAY! I GET TO EAT DINNER TOMORROW!"
Tucked away in a residential neighborhood west of the South Wedge district, Kiss, Kramer and Largey share a large, weathered house, the basement of which houses the Meatgrinder. The wood paneled back room hosts monthly punk, hardcore and experimental shows. “We made a couple of mistakes,” Kiss recalls when discussing the early days of the Meatgrinder approximately a year ago. “I remember one time we didn’t really talk about who we were booking and when we were booking, and we ending having a show every night for a week.”
This didn’t sit so well with the neighbors, resulting in the agreement to make shows monthly, and now the fairly laid-back neighbors are alerted weeks in advance. Kiss doesn’t reveal the address on the various Facebook events over privacy concerns, and asks that anyone interested message the bands privately for details. With all the effort put into doing their part for this bustling musical community, their adopted lifestyle presents its own set of obstacles.
“Yay! I get to eat dinner tomorrow!” Largey’s enthusiasm after selling a $10 Beard Without a Mustache t-shirt after his show was only half for laughs. “Going more broke every day,” he would laugh the next day. “Not making a penny off of this,” he said about his struggles to finance the production of a split record with FAMD and a set of 20 Waves Crashing Piano Chords 8-track tape recordings to put up for sale. It’s a tough sell and he knows it. “[My friend] Eric is the only one I know who even has an 8-track player,” he explains. But he’s hoping the novelty and uniqueness will help the selling point. He joked of the long outdated format, “I’m hoping people will have to buy it no matter how we sound.” He’s currently searching for work, but admits he doesn’t want to.
The tribulations of starving artists extend to Bourne and Kiss as well. Bourne supports himself by working in an Irondequoit pizza shop and going out to Buffalo to help his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease-stricken father with his home remodeling business. “I love my dad, so I do what I can to help him out,” Bourne explains. “And I enjoy the work.”
Kiss knows the struggles of the working world as well. “In my budget I’ve got $15 for groceries.” His guitarist, “Freaky,” who is a bit older and more financially established, misunderstood.
“A week,” Kiss corrected him. But it wasn’t a complaint; just a statement.
Kiss currently works assisting a man with muscular dystrophy to do household errands. The Long Island native came up to Chili to study religion and philosophy at Roberts Wesleyan College, but decided he’d had enough of institutional learning and left after three years. “I hate school. Always did, always will,” Kiss said.
It was a brazen move. I’m sure for many young people there are passions they’d rather be pursuing than the one they study in college, but the risk of not having a steady career doesn’t outweigh the reward of committing to our passions. Kiss doesn’t see it that way. “I’ve always loved music. I can’t live without it,” he explains. “When I was growing up people always told me never settle for less in life. Well in this case, having more money and more materialistic things would be settling for less; a lot less.”
His band mate Kramer shares his sentiment. “Music is my passion. As far as a career outside of music, I just want to pay my bills. I’m not looking to get rich or become a rock star,” he says. “I want to get married and someday have kids, but that will happen when it happens.” This attitude was the defining characteristic of the young musicians I met. In a world where many of us will work ourselves into the ground to earn a paycheck, they spend hours hand-burning and packaging CDs, putting together shows and supporting each other any way they can. They offer up couches to crash on, long hugs and impassioned conversations to those who share in their pursuits. It’s the carpe diem styling that we only see on bumper stickers and in movies. It is impressive and admirable. Talented and unique. You could call it a sacrifice, or you could call it a waste. But Kramer thinks you’d be wrong.
“I guess when you love something as much as I love music, it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice to make things happen.”