Sunday, March 25, 2012

The AIDS Wolf Breakup and Art vs. Validation, or: Noise Rock in the Age of Adult Contemporary: What the Fuck is the Point?

One thing i've always been honest about as i spend my time playing so-called "challenging" "noise rock" music is that, bold self-involved "artistic" statements aside, i'm a junkie for validation. I take part in playing live, recording and releasing records, and filming videos in part because i'm desperate for attention and want to be noticed. I'm not embarrassed about this at all--rather, i take pride in the fact that i'm honest about it. Look--human beings are communal by nature (despite your typical libertarian's protests to the contrary). Part of the act of creating art is its exhibition, and while writing a song, painting a picture, or writing a story is a reward in and of itself, there's not a human alive who doesn't enjoy hearing someone say "holy shit, that thing you did kicked ass." And yes, that includes those of us with a contrarian streak who bounce with glee when someone's reaction involves strong dislike. Love or hate, a reaction is validation--that someone is paying attention to you, and anyone who releases their work into the ether for the public to do with as they will wants to, at the very least, be acknowledged for existing if nothing else. Sure, some bands are more concerned with mass acceptance than others, but even the most abrasive, difficult, avant-garde no-waver wants someone to like them.

It's with this in mind that i completely relate to a recent blog post by Chloe Lum, lead singer of AIDS Wolf, exploring the mixed feelings she's experiencing upon the band's decision to break up. The post, "On the End of an Era," is worth a read--it's an honest outpouring of frustration that results from realizing that the musical landscape has changed from the heady days of the band's inception in 2003.

In the early part of the 2000′s there was a swell of noise-rock , noise and no wave influenced bands doing it seriously , some of them managing to find actual audiences.


In ’09 we stepped back after our guitarist Myles moved to the UK to woodshed as a trio with Alex. New rig , new songs and an goal towards greater abstraction. Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise had been passed around in the van and as a trio, going towards more a formal and disjointed sound seemed a natural progression.

So we stayed in the jam room for a year and wrote songs complicated enough that the only way to learn them was drilling them over and over for hours. My own lyrics got more abstract as I’d use made up words , vocal imitations of Alex’s electronics and plenty of stream of consciousness & cut up. During this time we wrote and rehearsed the material for Ma vie banale avant-garde.

Then , exactly a year letter we took in on the road and to Dub Narcotic studio in Olympia to record. It was to see that the setting had radically changed in the year we were woodsheding. For one , many of our peer bands had either disbanded , or stopped/seriously slowed down on touring. “I’m in debt and can’t afford the time off work anymore” they’d tell us , or “I want to start a family / go to grad school / get an adult job”. “I can’t face another empty room , it’s futile , pointless , ridiculous , demoralizing”. Same story everywhere and no surprise , we were getting older and so were our friends and what’s marginal at 20-something becomes much more so at 30-something or 40-something. But beyond many of our cohort moving on, there where significant changes in what was deemed “underground” , what could get booked where and under what circumstances. It seemed that as a bunch of 30 somethings in an extended van full of big amps and a loud as hell P.A. had become an anachronism.

All of the sudden bands doing ads for soft drink companies or department stores were considered “underground”. So where did this leave the actual underground, the one that couldn’t sell cars/soda/computers even if if wanted to? Because it was weird/ugly/dangerous/challenging? It left it in a cave.

Anyone who's read anything i've written about the state of indie rock in recent years can imagine that hearing these words out of a like-minded artist whom i've never met is, well, validating in a lot of ways. Like Chloe, i've seen overall interest in loud, noisy, weird, adventurous music wane over the past decade in favor of stuff that used to be filed in the Adult Contemporary bins. Likewise, in our 12 years of activity, my band has seen plenty of like-minded ensembles come and go. In the first five years of our existence, we considered bands like The Sump Pumps, Replicator, Viva La Foxx, Sounds Like Braille, and The New Blind Nationals allies in our own little struggle for community, relevance, and noise; today, they're all gone (it didn't escape me that the AIDS Wolf run started three years after our own, and as they call it quits, we're still truckin').

But mostly, what resonated with me is Chloe's assertion that noise is more and more getting "left in a cave." I've been saying similar things for years now and frankly, it's nice to hear that sentiment echoed by someone i've never met or seen play. It's a bummer, though, to hear that she's not sure whether or not she's done making music altogether. To hear her say "I’m not sure yet if this is the end of me making music or just the beginning of a long break" sounds to my ears like someone who is considering throwing up her hands and conceding defeat, and i really hope that doesn't end up being the case--not that i could blame her. Yes, playing noisy music in a world that largely is indifferent to anything not easily digestible or pigeonholed is very frustrating. It's a money pit with very little return, and year after year it becomes harder to find like-minded people to connect with, be they fans or fellow musicians. It's something that bands that play alt-country or pop-punk really will never understand. One of the HiFi's oldest pals, Nato Coles, formerly of the Modern Machines and now of Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band, once compared his Replacements-y singer/songwriter-ish vibe with our "challenging, quasi-arty edge" (his words) and said to us, "playing the kind of music you do would be exceedingly frustrating, and I'm not sure I could do it if I tried." Yes, if we're gonna play abrasive, blow-you-out-the-room maximum-volume noise rock, we shouldn't be surprised if the people who want easy listening flee to the bar. Some musicians are lucky in that their muse leads them toward a brand of songcraft that matches up with the zeitgeist and leads to lots of that sweet, sweet validation from others. Those of us playing noise-related music do not match up with the zeitgeist of 2012.

These are all things, though, that are beyond our control as artists. We have no control over what people like, what blogs decide to write about (even if we have money to spend on "servicing" publications with our records). The problem with looking outside ourselves for validation, while a fundamental piece of human nature, is that it's completely out of our hands, and to hope to drag others kicking and screaming into our way of thinking is to descend into insanity.

So when it comes to validation, what do we have control over? The validation of self, of course. Being able to find the same excitement in getting the fifth record back from the pressing plant that was there with the first. To quote Justin Vernon's grammy speech, writing songs for the inherent reward of writing songs. Reading Chloe's blog, it sounds like AIDS Wolf were still excited about the music they were making, and to me, that sounds like a perfectly acceptable reason for continuing on. But if the lack of return on investment from the outside world finally beat them down, i can't say i blame them, because i've spent many a night banging my head against that wall as well.

Every year i re-evaluate why the hell i'm still in IfIHadAHiFi. The records are expensive, the gas to get to the shows even more so. Booking tours, trying to coordinate four people's schedules, going to the DMV to renew the van's registration, flyering for shows, pleading with friends to come check out our friends' touring bands only to have all of them go bowling that night's all a pain in the ass, and focusing on it all makes me want to throw my hands up too. But then we manage to finish the music for a song that's been vexing us for the past year and a half and realize that it doesn't sound anything like any song we've written before, and suddenly i'm supercharged again. I am rock and roll's captive, and there's no cure for Stockholm Syndrome when it comes to rock and roll.

I really do hope that all the members of AIDS Wolf keep making music, and i hope that if they do, it's because they love it, not because the pendulum magically swung back toward mass interest in indie rock that actually has some gonads to it. Trends are fleeting; art is forever. Hell, even now all is not lost. All those bands we used to run with? The Replicator guys are Victory & Associates and Cartographer now; last i checked, Amy from Viva La Foxx is still kickin' it in Soapland. Hell, we assimilated one of the New Blind Nationals into our lineup. And at the end of June, a couple hundred like-minded fans of loud, noisy ass-kicking, occasionally challenging rock 'n' roll will convene in Chicago for the 4th annual PRFBBQ. There's plenty of validation out there if you know where to find it. Sure, it's not gonna help any of us break even on our records, but it's something.

You had the Alliance on you... criminals and savages... half the people on the ship have been shot or wounded, including yourself... and you're harboring known fugitives.

We're still flying.

That's not much.

It's enough.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Rock vs. Cancer: Rock Wins and Fuck Cancer Forever.

“There is only one god and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: “Not today.”
― George R.R. Martin

It's a very hard day today for those of us who were touched by the story of John Grabski III, a man who stared Death in the face and held it at bay while doing the living he needed to do, laughing the entire way.

I feel a lot different from many of my fellow musicians at shows, as well as the lot of you here. I didn't go to school for music. I didn't attend assloads of shows, or get hooked up with a scene. I was however an always-evolving music fan and for many years I was only an occasional musician, usually in small towns. I had kids early in adulthood and resigned to become a worker ant; feeling almost sure that if anything my love for playing music was going to be relegated to a hobby. In the back of my head I kept my skill growth and mental approach, I knew somehow that I would need to call upon rock & roll musicianship someday. My family separated in '05 though and my role as a father became really limited in a way that I never had much control over, depressingly so. But I used my newfound extra time to do things like convert my bedroom into a recording studio and record an album's worth of material. I did it for me; I didn't expect to be signed, I wasn't looking to start a band, no, I just wanted to make some rock music.

Then I got sick. Turns out it was testicular cancer. But the biopsy showed weird stuff and I had a 9 lb tumor in my abdomen. The surgery just about killed me, and I had tons of chemotherapy which was all hail-marys as not even the best minds in cancer knew how to treat what was some undocumented presentations of several types of cancer that had evolved from the original testicular cancer I had. Then more cancer was found in my chest. This was cancer type number 5, and was even rarer and harder to treat. More surgeries, more chemo, and some radiation. I almost died many times. But in November of 2008 I was in remission, and we all thought I was in the clear.

So I started working again (Creative Director at a software company and then landscaping... I needed to leave the office and get outside!), I spent a lot of time with my family, and I converted my attic into another low-fi recording studio. I never got myself to 100% physically speaking, not quite; but I tried my arse off. I never psychologically recovered from all of that stuff either, and I was thrown for a hell of a loop in spring '10 when I was told that I had a mass on my lung. The resulting major surgery ended up being unnecessary, all it was was scar tissue. But by then I had helped form Cheebahawk, and I recovered quickly and we started gigging in December of last year. We worked hard, scored some fun gigs including a great show @ Fontana's in NYC, and we kept developing newer and more complex material. So life without cancer was getting better. I even got some help from a shrink to help me better deal with all that had happened to me and my family due to my disease(s).

Then I had a scan this summer and we found out it was back. Biopsy showed that the 5th type of cancer had returned, and I had some scans that were supposed to show the surgeon an easy route to removing two small tumors, one on the front side and one on the backside of my lung. But that's not what happened. They found several other tumors and took them out, but could not totally remove the one on my heart... and the backside of my lung tumor had grown to the size of a nerf football, and has started to kinda merge with my lung which is a bad, bad thing. They can't take it out.

My body can't take any more chemo. Only certain areas of my body can stand radiation as I did get blasted in a few different areas over the years, and as I said earlier that big tumor can't be removed as it's too involved with other tissue and it's in a bad spot. Also it's clear to me and my longtime surgeon that it's likely that if I have another surgery, i'll likely shut down and pass away on the table. I have sooo much scar tissue, and I'm in a lot of pain a lot of the time. So what I'm doing now is radiation. Basically "comfort care" radiation, to try and shrink stuff so that I can be comfortable for as long as possible, especially that big tumor... when it grows back, or just continues to grow, nothing can be done about it, and it will likely be what claims me.

So after years of fighting it finally has a grip on me. I've had the best doctors in the country as well as some major cancer panels (consortiums of the best minds in the biz) looking over me, and honestly I wasn't supposed to last this long. I'm facing reality head-on, with realism, with a sense of humor, and with love for life, love for those I love, and love for rock & roll.

So I'm kinda in bucket list mode. And one thing I wanted to get done was an album, regardless of my skill as a musician. So Steve telling me on the phone that he'd like me to come down for a few days and get this done - it's a dream come true. It'll only be a five or six track album, and it won't light the world on fire, but I'm going to distribute it and promote it somehow, and will make sure a large percentage of revenues go toward cancer research.

Steve Albini donated his time and studio to this project for free, as did Chicago Mastering's Bob Weston. Melvins and Big Business drummer Coady Willis sent him a snare drum to use during the session. John and his brother Benjamin made the drive from New York state to Electrical Audio in Chicago, IL and emerged with this:

The Strain is a harrowing, exhilarating document of defiance in the face of Death and its hooded axeman, Cancer. It's classic, visceral grunge in the grandest tradition of Bleach-era Nirvana, Sabbath, Melvins, Mudhoney, with all their sardonic winks and scoffs scratched across a bed of true grit. "I'm as serious as cancer," John groans in the opening "Platinum," betraying the genuine humor and lust for life that ignited him through this entire project. It'd be worth a listen even without the "dude bucket listing in his final months" context, yet it's impossible to separate Teeth's only album from its origin story now.

John Grabski III died last night at far too young an age, after a heroic fight against our common foe. By "our" i mean "all of humanity," but anyone following my life for the last year knows that i've had my own issues with Cancer recently. Joss Whedon wrote these powerful words for Angel to speak in the final hours of his story: "If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do." We're only on this planet once, and who the hell knows what happens afterward. Maybe John's on another plane of existence, being greeted with open arms by the Cobains and Hendrixes; maybe there is nothing left of him but The Strain and the inspiration his story has implanted in the hearts of all those who have heard his tale. Either way, what matters is that John stared down the Reaper, said "hold your goddamn horses," and did more living in his final six months than many people do in 80+ years. If the measure of a person's life is how many people you touch in your limited time, then John has set a goddamn high bar for the rest of us to match.

So as John so often said/typed/hashtagged, "Rock vs. death--rock wins." Death may have gained an upper hand last night, but surely its victory is hollow, as it was preceded by blinding, thrilling, blistering LIFE. Sorry, Death, but the judges hand this one to rock. Not today, Death. Not today.