Sad news made the rounds over the weekend, as word spread that Miles Seaton of Akron/Family has died. He was 41 years old.
I was lucky enough to see Akron/Family play The Earl a few times over the years—in 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2012. The group’s members also made up Michael Gira of Swans group Angels of Light when they played The Earl in 2005.
Akron/Family was the quintessential experimental folk outfit, an offshoot of the “new weird America” scene, blending a cosmic strum and wail over a bed of noisy and psychedelic pleasantries. The group’s sound was a warm and far-out acoustic dirge that was inspired more by the back roads of rural Georgia than the mean streets of their hometown of Brooklyn.
I took these photos at The Earl on February 20, 2007, when Akron/Family was on the road playing songs from the album Love Is Simple (Young God Records). They shared the stage that night with Untied States.
Rest in peace.
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Jayne County is an avatar of social and cultural change—a transgender trailblazer, and a rock ‘n’ roll provocateur. “I Don’t Fit In Anywhere,” her latest single and collaboration with former Sexual Side Effects guitar player and songwriter Am Taylor takes stock of her six decades-long journey, from growing up in rural Dallas, Georgia to performing for New York City, London and the world. She worked side-by-side with and inspired legions of groundbreaking artists including David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, the Kinks, Lou Reed, the Ramones, and too many others to name here (seriously, books have been written chronicling her fascinating story). She even acted in Andy Warhol’s theatre production titled Pork. Despite such a long and illustrious career, though, “I Don’t Fit In Anywhere” resonates as a mantra, and an anthem for a life spent perpetually on the leading edge of cultural change. Now, teamed up with Taylor, the two have forged a path into new frontiers of rock ‘n’ roll as religion, safe haven, and ammunition to keep fighting in a contemporary landscape.
County and Taylor sat down with me to talk about how they met, recording their first single for Cleopatra Records, and where it’s all going from here.
Chad Radford: What’s striking to me about the video is the chemistry between the two of you. How did you start playing music together?
Am Taylor: We’ve known each other for about 10 years. We met through our friend Jen Belgard at the Euclid Avenue Yacht Club in Little Five Points. Obviously everybody knows Jayne, and she knew of my old band the Sexual Side Effects. One day, Jayne messaged me on Facebook and asked if I wanted to get together and write some songs.
Jayne County: I had played a few shows at the Yacht Club and at the Star Bar. Amber was there, and once we started talking we clicked immediately. I was looking for someone to help me out with some songs I’d written. She volunteered, and she understood what I was saying when I talked about how I wanted a song to feel, how it was structured, and what a song said. She picks up on all sorts of stuff, and adds her ideas, and makes it better!
AT: When Jayne messaged me, I’d been a hermit for a while—a recluse in my home—and was burned out on playing music. I’d done a lot of art and writing—I was taking courses and waking up every morning and doing object writing. I was in songwriter mode, and it was cool to have a collaborator. Jayne would hum a melody to me, I would craft the chords around it, and we’d have a song. That’s literally what our writing process has been.
JC: I don’t know where the songs come from. All of the sudden there’s a tune in my head. I’ll take it to Amber and say it goes like this [hums]. She picks up her guitar and plays what I hummed. Before long she’s playing the whole song!
Have songs always just come to you?
JC: Yes they have, they just descend down on me. Where do they come from? I’ve got that thing where there’s a constant humming in my ears—tinnitus. Sometimes that’s where the songs come from—my tinnitus hums a tune at me. I might be driving in my truck, feeding my cats, cooking, or doing anything, and a tune will come to me. If it disappears, it disappears. If it keeps coming back to me I know it’s catchy, and it will probably be a good song. I’ll record them into my phone. Then Amber works on them.
AT: I have my own process with my songs—I have a factory! I’ll sit down at the kitchen table or wherever, and write down an idea that comes to me, and that’s one session. Another phase: I’ll drive around in my car and rate the ideas that I have, one-through-five. Then I’ll have another session where I’ll piece the songs together. Then I’ll write a first draft. Then I’ll rewrite it and make it better. Then rewrite it again! I usually go through about four drafts. I spend a lot of time on my songs. With Jayne and it’s easy because she comes to me with ideas and it’s like boom, boom, boom, done. We’re a productive team.
JC: We can have one rehearsal session and come up with two or three songs.
AT: She’s into all of this ‘60s stuff and comes up with cool doo-wop and surf stuff that I wasn’t aware of. Working with producer and engineer Andy Reilly, we made our song sound really cool. He knows Jayne so it’s still rock ‘n’ roll. But with the new stuff we’re going to have a production that’s something like the Viagra Boys: loud drums, driving bass. But we’re adding some ‘60s elements. I’ve been playing through a Marshall, and I’ll have these Queens of the Stone Age sounds. With Jayne, I’ll play a Fender and get a James Bond surf rock sound.
JC: I like the folk-rock twangy kind of sound, too. You can hear it in “I Don’t Fit In Anywhere.” To me, the music of the ‘60s was great because it was taking rock ‘n’ roll but adding elements from Indian music, classical music, adding sitar, flute, harpsichord. There was a lot of experimentation with music going on back and then, and a lot of it stood out.
AT: I love Ennio Morricone who composed soundtracks for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Danger: Diabolik, Deep Down. The soundscapes that he created were so weird and different and even the soundtrack for Barbarella: I love the guitar tones. We play music the way we do, but I want to bring those production elements into it as well.
What did you have in mind when you wrote “I Don’t Fit In Anywhere?”
JC: I am a big fan of protest music: “Eve Of Destruction,” P.F. Sloan, the Byrds, early Bob Dylan when he was still a protest singer—before it became really boring. “I Don’t Fit In Anywhere” came from out of nowhere, and the tune came with it. It’s along the same line as the Kinks’ song, “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.” We have this structure called society that says there are certain things that you have to do, and certain things that you have to believe in. Anyone who can’t do it, just can’t do it. They stick out, and that’s what that song is about. By that I mean not fitting into the gay world, not fitting in with the trans world, the straight world. It’s about being one creature—on your own in the world—but not letting it get you down. Making it work for you.
Jayne, you were a teenager in Dallas, GA during the Civil Rights era, you moved to New York City and participated in the Stonewall riots, and you were there when punk rock was forming.
JC: I was a little before punk, they’ve often called me proto-punk.
You’ve been a harbinger of cultural and social change. Do you look at contemporary society and see the results of what you’ve been a part of? Do you still feel like you don’t fit in?
JC: I have thought about this before: How much of an impact did I really make? I have always been anti-establishment, or whatever the established norm is. I truly do not fit in, so I try to change things for the better for everyone. I can see that certain things have changed as the result of some people being on the frontlines, and not being afraid to make change. You can’t be afraid, or change won’t happen. People have to be on the frontlines to build the different kinds of roads to go down. I had to make my own road to go down.
And yes, I still feel like I don’t fit in. I built my own road to go down, and that road always leads back to me not fitting in. But that keeps me going and working harder. If I fit in I probably wouldn’t be Jayne Country anymore.
Maybe that’s where the frontline is now: In the wake of social media, people need to find that road to embrace their identity.
JC: Yes, and younger people need to know more about history. People are really dumb about history now. I’m a history buff; people have done a lot of really shitty things in the past, but nobody seems to ever learn anything from it.
AT: I’m a history buff, too. The Roman Empire: I have a song about Julius Caesar called “Blood Moon,” and a song about Winston Churchill called “The Darkest Hour.” Instead of writing a song about how a boy or girl broke your heart, this was a different way of writing a song. I studied all of these eras and learned about their stories and pulled imagery from the locations and the people. One is Julius Caesar’s revenge as a ghost, which was cool. It was a lot like “Game of Thrones,” or something. Julius Caesar gets his revenge in the end.
JC: Ancient Egypt is my thing. If you look at the walls in my living room they’re covered with nothing but Egyptian stuff. Hundreds of statues of Bastet, Anubis, Tutankamon. I do a lot of painting with Egyptian themes, but my last two shows have been postponed because of the pandemic.
I have a three-legged cat named King Tut, but we just call him Tut. Most of my cats are rescues. Right now I have about 13 cats.
That’s a lot of mouths to feed!
JC: Oh I know it. My cat food bill is way too high, and I think I feed them too much. But they’re safe and they’re happy here. I leave dry food and water out for them, and I mix wet food with treats. All I have to do is shake the bag of treats and they come running!
Amber, when considering Jayne’s legacy, do you feel pressure to raise the bar for yourself?
AT: The way that I can raise the bar is by thinking about us together—making the songs the best that they can be. I think about how we work together, and respecting Jayne’s ideas, and giving her the space that she needs. I do a lot of rewriting of songs. Sometimes a great song isn’t complete. With “I Don’t Fit In Anywhere,” we didn’t have the hook at the beginning. We tried a bunch of different things, so that’s how I raise the bar.
There’s this trick that Radiohead and the Smiths do to make songs sound weird and cool and creepy, called using borrowed chords. You write out each note of the scale within a major scale and then pick the minor scale. For each one of those notes within that scale is a chord, and you create a chord progression. You can then swap out that chord—the fourth note in the scale is the fourth chord—and you could swap that out for the minor scale version. That’s what a lot of Beatles songs do, and you hear that in a lot of my songs. How can we make this cool as shit? How can we make it like the Smiths?
What would Johnny Marr do (WWJMD)?
AT: Yes! He does all of these inversions, and weird jazz shit. I want to add that into it as well. Make it go to an all new level of cool.
JC: No. I’ve been thinking about updating “Man Enough To Be A Woman,” but we’re concentrating on writing new songs.
AT: We have about five songs, and we’re getting more together for an LP.
JC: Among those five songs there are still ideas that haven’t been pulled out and worked on yet. But when we get 10 songs together we’ll be in good shape for an album.
You did the new single with Cleopatra Records. Are they interested in releasing an album?
AT: Cleopatra said, “Let’s see how things go with this one, and we’ll figure out what to do from there.” We’re still learning the business side of things. From this go around we’ve learned that Jayne has a huge following in Germany, Scandinavia, and Sweden. People were Shazaming the song an awful lot over there.
JC: Iggy Pop played the song on his BBC show. He played “Paranoid Paradise” on the show, so I sent him the new video. His response was, “It’s good …” He didn’t say he was gonna play it or anything like that. But he did!
AT: He said I was a “shrewd rockin’ chic!” I’ve never been called shrewd before, but that has to be Iggy’s stamp of approval, right?
Absolutely! You don’t want him to call you a goody two-shoes!
AT: I guess we did break into a church in the video, but at least we went to church, right?
It’s a long story, but our video turned into something much different from what we thought it would be. Initially we were going to go to all of these places and get kicked out. But since we didn’t have a lot of time or budget we shot it all there and at the Star Bar. As it turned out, he Star Bar had closed down a few days before we were supposed to shoot, but we got in touch with the new owners and got in there. Video Rahim is great, he had all of these ideas like “why don’t you smoke a joint in church, or somebody should grab this girl’s boob here.”
We were lucky to get Justin Welborn, who plays the preacher. He’s our friend, but he’s a TV star now. He was in The Signal, Unforgiven, the reboot of MacGuyver. He has a great look … Great priest! We just asked, “Hey, would you be in our video?” We have all this crazy extra footage of him freaking out and screaming about us going to hell. He’s such a great actor.
What’s next for you?
JC: When we recorded “I Don’t Fit In Anywhere” we also recorded another song called “Too Much Information.” We’ll make a video for that next.
AT: That song has extreme James Bond guitar in it, like spy hunter sounds.
JC: I talk about Facebook and Youtube on it: “Leave me alone/Youtube is on” … “Smart TV/MP3/Can you download your love for me?” Stuff like that.
Have the two of you played live together yet?
JC: Not yet. I’ve thought about doing an invitation show, where we play the songs in front of an audience. There’s a new song we’re working on that I’m excited about, called “She’s On A ‘60s Trip.” The lyrics are tongue-in-cheek, and the verses are constructed using titles from all of these ‘60s songs put together as verses, like “Come On Baby, light my fire, break on through to the other side,” ”Trapped in the house of the rising sun,” “I wanna hold your hand at the revolution.”
AT: We’ve only kind of worked out the acoustic part for it. It will start to morph a little more when we go into the studio and start doing demos. I’m big into creating soundscapes with music. I play a bunch of instruments, and I want to create these soundscapes behind things, so you know the ‘60s stuff that we keep talking about will be fun.
JC: I met them at Max’s Kansas City years ago, and we’ve known each other for years.
I get the impression that, in the mid-to-late ‘70s, you were either a Max’s Kansas City band or a CBGBs bands. Some groups played both, but there was a perceived loyalty to one or the other. What was the line in the sand?
JC: Max’s was more diverse. CBGBs got to a point where it was suburban kids driving in with their punk clothes in the car. They’d dress up in their punk clothes in the car and go to the show. Afterward they’d go change out of their punk clothes, and get back into their office gear for work the next day.
Max’s held up the real freak scene. The real artists scene. There was a big gay clientele there, but it wasn’t a gay club. Gay people were welcome; everyone was welcome. CBGBs became kind of homophobic after a while. A war between CBs and Max’s started in about 1976, because Dick Manitoba from the Dictators jumped up on my stage one night at CBGBs. He’d been in the audience calling me all kinds of names. He jumped onto the stage and I thought he was going to attack me, so I clocked with the mic stand. He fell over and hit a table and was hurt really badly. I felt absolutely terrible about it. That started a war: A lot of people at CBs were taking the wrestler’s side—Handsome Dick Manitoba. People Max’s took my side.
He pressed assault charges against me, but he wouldn’t show up in court so the case was thrown out. He was embarrassed because word hit the streets that poor ol’ Dick Manitoba got his ass kicked by a drag queen.
After that, for a time, Patti Smith talked about it in her shows, saying: “You can’t judge people by what they look like, or by the clothes they wear.” … All because I whooped him. I only did it because I felt like I needed to. He’d been yelling homophobic things at me—just saying horrible things. When he jumped up onto the stage it scared me to death. He had a beer mug in his hand, and he turned at me. I thought he was going to hit me with that beer mug. Later, he said, “Oh, I was just trying to get to the bathroom.”
You moved to London soon after that, correct?
JC: Yes, I moved to London in ‘76 and started playing the clubs there. In ‘77 I went on tour. The Police were my opening band!
When people talk about the golden era of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, they think about the Talking Heads, Ramones, Television, that era at CBGBs. Over at Max’s there was Cherry Vanilla and later came the Misfits, the Victims, the New York Dolls. You were there before those scenes took shape, but you are one of the artists who laid the groundwork for that whole era to begin …
JC: People say that, but it’s hard for me to judge things clearly. I’m so close to it all, and it’s hard to think that was really even me—the person—who was there.
You really were there, and you really did kick Handsome Dick Manitoba’s ass at CBGBs.
JC: He tried to make it make it out like “Oh, I was just going to the bathroom and this big ol’ mean drag queen attacked me, a poor little ol’ wrestler.”
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Over the last two years, Watch Out For Snakes mastermind Matt Baum has played a transformative role in fostering Atlanta’s chipwave, chiptune, and synthwave music scene—electronic music that combines elements of video game sounds, Italo Disco, post-punk, acid house, and new wave songwriting. Since releasing his frenetic debut album UPGRADE in 2018, followed by Scars in 2019, the Florida-born electronic music producer, who has lived in Atlanta since 2006, has kept the art of high-energy live performance chief among his priorities. As standing quarantine orders lumber toward the one-year mark, Baum has channeled his efforts into creating his first video for a new song titled “Fight Those Invisible Ninjas.”
Baum took a few minutes to talk about the song, his experiences growing up amid the hardcore scene on Florida’s Space Coast, and bringing attitude and energy to electronic music.
Chad Radford: “Fight Those Invisible Ninjas” gives nods to soundtracks for games like “Ninja Gaiden” and the “Megaman X” series—it’s driving enough for the dance floor, and benefits from modern synth tones, yet it’s nostalgic enough to draw some seriously nerdy references.
Matt Baum: Totally! I draw influence from a lot of different sources, largely retro games from the Nintendo and Super Nintendo era, ‘70s/’80s outfits like Sparks, Depeche Mode, and ELO, synth-y composers like Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, and the energy of hardcore/punk bands like Minor Threat, Refused, Comeback Kid, and Underoath. I’d say 90% of my instrumentation is synthesized from NES chip tones, everything but my drums and pads, but I tend to arrange with a hardcore/punk sensibility because I want to throw down when I perform live. It’s always been about bringing as much attitude as I can to the electronic scene, because that’s the energy I respond to when I’m a fan in the crowd.
How did growing up on Florida’s Space Coast affect your relationship with music?
My introduction to any music scene was going to local hardcore shows in the late ‘90s/early 2000s. I spent a lot of time in community centers like the Melbourne Jaycees. We were all young and dumb with too much energy so all of those shows were a blast. Everyone would get super into dancing and throwing down—we were all super supportive of each other too because the scene was so small. I have a lot of nostalgia for that scene because there was a certain simplicity and authenticity to it. Everyone just wanted to make music that was fun and there weren’t a lot of gatekeepers. There was a single promoter down there called Little Reggies Productions that handled all of the hardcore, punk, and emo acts and they were super fair about how they booked acts, which fostered a lot of love across the scene. Everything I do now–live performance-wise—is trying to recapture the magic of those early days and show everyone a good time.
Did you play guitar before you switched to keytar?
I grew up playing classical piano, but never really enjoyed playing music until I discovered that you could transcribe and play tunes that actually meant something to you. The first song I ever transcribed and played was the main theme for “Final Fantasy VI” on Super Nintendo. That was when I was in 4th grade and it was an epiphany for me, but it wasn’t until 2003 that I started performing at actual shows. I joined a melodic hardcore band in my Florida hometown of Indialantic, called Audrey. They wanted a synth player so I started writing with them. A few months in, I got jealous of the guitarists being able to throw down and engage with the crowd at floor shows so I bought a keytar off eBay and never looked back. I used that same keytar through Audrey, the first Atlanta band I was in, The Drownout (2007-2009), and on up to WOFS. I can’t not be mobile when I’m playing and I don’t like putting up a barrier of synths between myself and the crowd because the only reason I play is to directly feel that reciprocal energy between myself and the crowd.
On a side note, I bought a Telecaster with the intent of teaching myself guitar in 2010, but I didn’t get very far. I still want to spend time learning at some stage. Because I respect the hell out of multi-instrumentalists. I do know how to play oboe (three years in middle school), but I don’t know that there’s much call for oboe in popular music at the moment!
What inspired you to pursue this style of music?
I stumbled across chiptune and synthwave as genres without knowing that there were established genres for either. I’ve always enjoyed messing with minimal synth tones, which I mainly got from more contemporary groups like We Are Wolves, Metronomy, and Bloc Party. But this project mostly began as me thinking, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if someone wrote an ‘80s movie soundtrack concept album but had all the instrumentation sound like video game music?” The only reason I was even going down an instrumental avenue is because my previous project with my former bassist had fallen through and I was tired of trying to get a vocal tone in that project that I was happy with. It was only once I had a few tracks written that I discovered SURVIVE through The Guest soundtrack and then College through the Drive soundtrack. Those two groups really opened up my eyes that there was a demand for structurally simple, but pure musical ideas.
How do you pull off your high-energy shows as a one-man act?
I had my first full album written almost a year before my first live performance primarily because I deliberated for so long about the best way to perform the music live. Originally, I experimented with a looper pedal because I loved what artists like Howie Day have done, building the whole song live, but the songs I’d written at that stage were too layered and had too many song parts for that to be practical. I also wanted to find a way of incorporating the actual Nintendo into what I was doing, but at the time, the only chiptune artists that were using actual consoles in a live setting were using them more as sequencers, not as instruments and I wanted listeners to connect with what I was doing on stage at any given second. I’ve seen some disappointing synth and chip shows where the artist either just hit play and stood around or was walled up behind so much hardware that you couldn’t tell what they were doing. I didn’t want that for me. So I found a way of compromising where I play backing tracks with the lead parts of each song section pulled out so that I can perform those parts live with the keytar and the softsynth Nintendo emulator I use, Plogue chipsounds.
My entire stage show was designed based on experiences in previous bands to be as easy to set up, tear down, and perform as possible so that I can just focus on the performance itself. I’ve had my share of embarrassing technical glitches with hardware, etc. right before a set and knew I didn’t want to deal with that in WOFS. Proud to say that I’ve only experienced one technical glitch in any of my live WOFS performances and it was something that got worked out during sound check thankfully.
As far as being solo goes, the biggest challenge comes more from travel, trying to figure out how to fly and safely transport all of my equipment from A to B. As an individual, this was probably one of the largest problems I faced, but I figured out a system involving some solid road cases and bungee cords that’s done pretty well for me. I’ve still experienced some unfortunate damage due to TSA checks though, but mostly minor stuff.
Is the song’s title, “Fight Those Invisible Ninjas.” about dealing with personal demons, or is it simply a “Ninja Gaiden” reference?
“Fight Those Invisible Ninjas” is actually a tongue-in-cheek homage to my hardcore days. There are certain mosh calls we’d use as hardcore musicians in the early 2000s to get the crowd to start throwing elbows, kicking, and basically just getting a good pit going. One of those mosh calls “Fight those invisible ninjas!” was one that musicians used half-jokingly because of how ridiculous it was and it eventually became a meme within the hardcore scene, but it perfectly captured this great energy that I always felt at those shows. I want to do what I can to bring more of that attitude and energy to the synth world especially, because I feel like synth artists tend to prioritize polish and aesthetic over grit and rawness.
You hit on some of the subtext of the track though, which was an intentional double-meaning in the title—battling personal demons, which in my case revolve around personal health and self-esteem issues. But each listener can re-interpret those demons to their own personal experience.
Part of your dynamic is channeling personal experiences into songs. How do you approach this?
When I start writing a song, it always starts with a combination of an emotion I’m feeling in that moment as well as some musical technique I want to explore. Musical expression is a form of therapy for me, which is why my songs span a variety of different tempos and musical moods. I’m not that different from most musicians. To this point, what’s inspired me to write has been an amalgam of different traumas and celebrations I’ve experienced over the course of my life: losing family, getting divorced, going through heart surgery, new relationships and friendships … If I find myself focusing on one of these things to the point where it’s overwhelming, that’s when I feel the urge to sit down and write.
I end up shaping these feelings through different song structures or instrument synthesis though, which is where the technical experimentation comes into play.
Initially, I suspected the name, “Watch Out For Snakes,” was a reference to old-school Pitfall for Atari, but it’s a MST3K reference.
I didn’t run across MST3K until I hit high school, but when I did, I went all in on it. “Watch out for snakes,” initially a one-off joke in their Eegah episode became a frequent callback through the entire series that just stuck with me. So when I knew that I wanted to start an attitude-driven chiptune project that kept things light-hearted and goofy, and began brainstorming project names, Watch Out For Snakes was something fun that I kept gravitating back to that no one else seemed to be using musically. I used to have great Google Search results too until a few years ago when the MST3K guys did a reunion “Watch Out For Snakes Tour.” Ah well.
Do you face a different set of standards, or is it difficult to be taken seriously?
The biggest challenge I face is booking shows, especially locally, as a “chipwave” artist. I’ve had a lot of great opportunities out on the road playing huge fests like MAGFest and BitGen Gamer Fest, both in Baltimore, Outrun the Sun Fest in LA, Neon Rose in Portland, OR, and NEON Fest in Providence, which got cancelled last year due to quarantine measures. I feel like I’m an act that wins people over in a live setting because of my energy. But it’s been a hard sell to get booked as support, especially here in Atlanta, for larger synth and video game acts because I ride a fine line between the two groups. Most of the time that can work to my advantage, because I have fan appeal across multiple genres, but a lot of promoters that haven’t seen my act sometimes find me too chippy for synth shows and too synthy for video game shows. I’m positive though that eventually everyone will come around!
There’s a lot of local synth and chip talent in the Atlanta area that doesn’t get the exposure it deserves because some promoters just don’t know what to do with us. That’s one of the reasons I started putting together an artist collective prior to COVID (in partnership with Drunken Unicorn and Outrun Brewery) called Terminus Retrowave, with the goal of providing more opportunities for touring chip and synth acts to perform in Atlanta while pairing them with relevant artists in our local community. Atlanta has one of the largest synthwave artist populations in the US, but Atlanta fans don’t know about them because there’s not a central hub/event to bring everyone together. Hopefully, once the COVID dust settles, we can get that going again in earnest, but in the meantime, I’m partnering with local artists to put something on together in a virtual livestream setting.
What’s next for you?
I quit my day job in November 2020 to pursue music full-time for at least a couple of months so I’m going all-in on a few soundtrack commissions for video games and film, exploring a split 7-inch release with a fellow musician, knocking out some remixes for people, and finishing some additional singles that will be out in the coming months. I’m also going to invest a lot more of myself in Terminus Retrowave and hope to get the first virtual livestream on the books by April 2021. Basically, I’m going to continue exploring how to diversify my music career in a way that’s sustainable and that hopefully gives back to the Atlanta music community.
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Stark black-and-white photographs of a man with intense focus, hammering at plastic containers, metallic tubes, and hunks of repurposed weapons of war. His head and face clean-shaven, and a cigarette dangling from his lower lip as he kneels—muscles locked—pounding metal rods and mallets on mangled bits of titanium and steel. This vision of percussionist and sound artist Z’ev (born Stefan Joel Weisser) was broadcast from the Bay Area to middle America and beyond in the pages of the Industrial Culture Handbook, published by punk and underground culture journal RE/Search in 1983.
RE/Search placed Z’ev alongside industrial music’s early pioneers Throbbing Gristle, NON, Cabaret Voltaire, and more. But as each of these other acts explored the dark aspects of society in the wake of the industrial revolution with subversive cunning, Z’ev communed with the mystical elements of the natural world. The sounds he created tuned into the deeper resonances of a planet hurtling through space, spinning in alignment with the unseen contours of the universe.
Association with industrial music was never disconcerting for him. “It was just a bunch of people coming from an art background, moving into a proto-punk kind of thing,” Z’ev explained over the phone during an interview in 2007. “My relationship with industrial music had to do with the instruments I was using. They were products of high technological industrialization.”
Z’ev utilized the scraps of industry to draw out both the gargantuan and the meditative qualities of metal, space, and time. He fully embraced the artistic notions of turning swords into plowshares, but most importantly, his performances and compositions honed the power of pure harmonics.
Be it with his earlier “wild style” live performances imbued with an intense physical show of force, or his more aurally-focused compositions that found balance in primitive rhythms and improvisation, Z’ev’s output had more in common with the tonal exploration of composers of massive minimalism such as Tony Conrad and Lustmord, or the techniques of Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening Band, rather than the dirge of groups like Einstürzende Neubauten or Test Dept., who utilize similar instrumentation. “I was never interested in people coming to see a violent thing happen, because it wasn’t violent; it was a powerful thing,” he explained.
Recalling reviews of early performances: One bay area journalist wrote that “he manipulates large, metal objects with the look of a concert pianist.” But in New York, a writer called him “a man who personifies violence in sound and vision,” and later asked “why does this remind me of a guy being jerked around by two vicious Doberman Pinschers?”
The latter review didn’t set well. “He’s probably someone who cowers during a thunderstorm,” Z’ev offered with an understated laugh. “Some people revel in a thunderstorm and others get scared. It’s an elemental thing and people’s relationship to them determines if it’s something scary or something to embrace.”
Early Z’ev recordings such as 1981’s Salts Of Heavy Metals (Infidelity Records) and 1982’s Elemental Music (Subterranean Records) summoned the hypnotic qualities of reverberating metal by guiding the clang and bang of his performance to harness the ghostly acoustic feedback swelling between each mallet strike—the rhythmic aural phenomena created by his homemade instruments interacting with the room itself.
Z’ev spent a lifetime studying music, the nature of sound, and spirituality from around the world, including Kabbalah and esoteric systems, and wrote a book titled Rhythmajik: Practical Uses of Number, Rhythm, and Sound. He also worked with the Fluxus Group, and was active in the Downtown Manhattan music scene of the ‘80s and ‘90s, as well as the West Coast’s avant-garde arts and music community, extending from his time attending the California Institute of the Arts.
In 1980, he shared the stage with British goth-punks Bauhaus on their first headlining tour of the U.K. “We always used to hand pick our special guests and would look for unusual, stimulating, and challenging artists,” Bauhaus’ bass player and vocalist David J offered in an email. “We saw a film of Z’ev doing a performance where he was ‘playing the building,’ and also using his collection of plastic containers to great rhythmic effect. At the time, we were getting more rhythmic as a band so it was very complimentary to have him opening for us. I believe that he is something of a shaman.”
Over the years, Z’ev also collaborated with various composers, including live electronic music innovator Carl Stone, multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp, guitarist Glenn Branca, pianist Charlemagne Palestine, noise artist Merzbow, Genesis P. Orridge of Psychic T.V., Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))), percussionist Jon Mueller, and dozens more.
Like many, Mueller discovered Z’ev after reading about him in RE/Search’s Industrial Culture Handbook. “When I read his article in ’87 or ’88, I remember it striking me as someone really living a different kind of life, and as a drummer, it was inspiring—mostly in that his ideas went far beyond drumming.”
A few years later, Mueller booked Z’ev to play a show in Milwaukee, where the two met. Later, Mueller released the Osso Exótico + Z’EV CD via the Crouton label.
“Years later, I shared another bill with him in Milwaukee, as part of the Milwaukee Noise Fest,” Mueller says. “That was a great night. We had dinner and really got to talk instead of just exchanging emails—his were typically brief. His set with the synthetic drum triggers manipulating the Jimi Hendrix video was a new direction for him, and I admired his dedication to finding ways to create.”
Mueller goes on to say: “My perception after meeting him didn’t change much, except realizing the possibilities that exist. Being young reading about someone, especially someone like Z’ev, you never assume that one day you’d meet them, let alone work with them.”
In 2009, Important Records released HYDratioN, a collaboration in which Mueller mailed Z’ev a collection of tracks—drums vibrated with gong and synth recordings, and other small percussion. According to the LPs sleeve, Z’ev “recreated” the source material to an extreme degree. How it was executed, though, remains a mystery. “It’s somewhat unclear what all happened on his end,’” Mueller says. “To me, it sounded different than what I sent him, but he said he ‘basically just mixed it.’”
A now scarce retrospective double CD released in 1991, titled 1968-1990: One Foot In The Grave (Touch), drew renewed interest in Z’ev. Dozens more releases followed, including a 2006 CD for Atlanta’s Blossoming Noise label, titled Symphony #2 – Elementalities.
But even in the digital era, many of his recordings remain frustratingly difficult to track down. As a result, more people have heard of Z’ev than have experienced his performances.
For his 2007 tour—his first proper trek playing shows across the United States—Z’ev’s inventory of instruments included steel sheets and boxes, titanium tubes, a gong made from a patio table bass, and a section from the tank of an 18-wheeler. Each is played with various mallets and maracas that have been altered with ball bearings.
His favorite metal is Titanium, which he discovered at a Bowing scrap yard in Seattle circa 1982 where he acquired surplus materials salvaged from the cooling system of missile silos from Triton submarines. “When the rocket shoots out of the sub you have to cool the interior of the silo or it would melt the submarine,” he adds with childlike enthusiasm. “Titanium can become white hot and maintain structural integrity. The more heat and pressure that’s used to create a metal, creates energy potential. When you hit titanium it amplifies the sonic energy it puts out.”
That sonic energy still rings out with unmatched power.
Z’ev was born on February 8, 1951. He passed away on December 16, 2017. He sustained injuries including a punctured lung and five broken ribs, after surviving a train derailment in Kansas. He was 66 years old.
These photos were taken when Z’ev performed at Eyedrum Arts & Music Gallery on May 16, 2007. Mr. Natural, Black Meat, and Sikhara also performed.All photos by Chad Radford.
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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, an early incarnation of the group now known as Ecryptus was born as a melodic death metal band hellbent on exploring the blackened depths of the cosmos. It was the early aughts, and the group’s singer and guitar player Mike Michalski took lead of this ragtag band of thrashers who knew from the beginning that they wanted to do more than write what he calls “pretentious love songs to Satan.”
One day, while wandering around the annual sci-fi and fantasy Sodom and Gomorrah that is Dragcon the group came face-to-face with an ancient order of Force-wielding rockabilly punks with a penchant for theatrics—Grand Moff Tarkin. Featuring Atlanta artists and underground impresarios Jim Stacy and Shane Morton, GMT pushed the Star Wars theme to the extreme, with an array of spot-on costumes, props, and a legion of stormtroopers to do their bidding.
In an instant, Ecryptus emerged with an arsenal of wholly new and sinister Star Wars-themed black metal to serve the Dark Side.
“Grand Moff Tarkin did their thing with unapologetic campiness,” Michalski says, “but we wanted to make serious songs and treat the source material how many bands treat Tolkien. So we thought, how can we hint at the Dark Side of Star Wars without getting completely sued?”
In 2008, Ecryptus unleashed the Astral Crusades EP, breathing life into the group’s campaign for Darth metal supremacy with songs such as “Imperial Revenge,” “Abandon All Hope,” and “Execute Order 666.” More than a decade later, the “Rancorous” b/w “Execute Order 666 MMXVIII” 7-inch summons a supernatural whirr of cosmic grind, making their transformation to the Dark Side complete.
“Ecryptus,” according to Star Wars lore, was the name of the cavern deep below the surface of the planet Korriban where the ancient Sith species first encountered the Dark Side of the Force. Most of the songs the group has recorded and played live deal with the more horrific scenarios that are woven throughout the Star Wars canon that people only familiar with the films might have never thought too deeply about: being sentenced to death by Rancor, being frozen in carbonite, enslaving an entire planet of wookies, and so on.
“Rancorous” opens with a mighty roar before a spiraling assault of blast beats and demonic incantations rise over searing guitar leads that burn with the heat of Vader’s red lightsaber. On the flipside, “Execute Order 666 MMXVIII” resurrects what has become Ecryptus’ unofficial anthem with a new recording, celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Astral Crusades’ release. The song chronicles Anakin Skywalker’s perspective of executing Emperor Palpatine’s “Order 66” to slaughter the Jedi. “Making the Emperor say “666” was fun,” Michalski says.
The line up at the time of recording the “Rancorous” single featured Michalski, aka Lord Crypt, performing alongside bass player Lord Tenebris, born Allen Keller of Degradations, drummer Dan Solo, aka Danny Ryann (ex-Gigan), and guitar player Ryan Lamb. Lamb moved to Orlando shortly after the songs for the 7-inch were recorded. Lord Abraxas, aka Justin Brown (ex-Synapse Defect), now plays guitar.
The 7-inch arrived pressed on a multi-hued galaxy of vinyl colors: Cauterized Saber Wound, Mace Windu Purp Surp, Ghrey Rey, Opening Crawl Rotten Banana, Gamorrean Guard Mucus, Sarlacc Puke After Trying To Digest Boba Fett, Luke’s Lame-Ass Saber, and Dagoba Green.
Live, the group takes the stage sporting sith-corpse paint, robes, armor, Dragoncon-acquired lightsabers, and their friend Scara Slayfield wearing her best “Hutt Slayer” Princess Leia outfit, serving drinks to the stage, and adorning the monitors.
The group recently finished recording material for a new EP that’s due out in the Spring of 2021. More recent Ecryptus songs draw inspiration from the expanded universe—characters from Star Wars comic books, novels, and video games.
The forthcoming EP is tentatively titled Kyram Beskar’gam, and, if you watched the The Mandalorian—and you know you did—you already know the title is Mando’a for “Death Armor/Metal.” The new EP will feature songs with titles such as “Cauterized Saber Wound Massacre,” “Planetary Enslavement,” “Compulsion to Disintegrate,” and “Digested over 1000 Years.”
“With each new release, we give in to our anger,” Michalski says, “and become more the Dark Side’s servant …”
In the words of Darth Vader, “You don’t know the power of the Dark Side!”
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It’s the people one encounters along the way that turns any trip into a journey.
On Wednesday, December 16, the iconic drummer John Densmore joined me for an A Cappella Books exclusive Zoom chat discussing his latest memoir, The Seekers: Meetings With Remarkable Musicians (and Other Artists).
Densmore is the former drummer for the late great Los Angeles psychedelic rock group the Doors. With The Seekers, he reflects on a lifetime spent crossing paths with greatness. From artists such as Elvin Jones to Joseph Campbell, Patti Smith, the Dalai Lama, Willie Nelson, and John Coltrane, his own mother, and more, The Seekers is a rumination on the knowledge that Densmore has gained through various remarkable encounters, and an exploration of his own relationship with art, music, and humankind.
Entertainment, for most intents and purposes, fell silent after releasing its 2009 debut album, Gender (Stickfigure Records, Adistant Sound, and Duchess Archive). Aside from playing shows in the Southeastern U.S., sharing stages with Modern English in 2016-17, the gothic-leaning post-punk outfit has remained far from the public eye for nearly 11 years.
In October 2020, two of the group’s founding members, Trey Ehart (vocals, guitar, bass, and synthesizer) and Bari Donovan (drums and percussion), along with Entertainment’s latest addition Jim Groff (synth) emerged from the void with a new single, titled “Maggot Church.” From the song’s hissing salvo — a deluge of sonic light and shadow — “Maggot Church’s” stark, effects-laden doom and ambiance are pierced by Ehart’s spectral moans of catharsis. Released with a handful of remixes by INHALT, Delphine Coma, and SubVon, aka producer and former March Violets guitar player Tom Ashton, “Maggot Church” is an empowered number cut from rhythmic grooves and distortion, and charged with intensity. It’s a twisted and contemptuous song that expands upon the group’s brand of gothic rock with an evolved and atmospheric makeover. It’s also the first cut from an upcoming two-part EP to be released in early 2021, titled Horror Parts 1 and Part 2. While preparing for the first EP’s January arrival, Ehart took a few minutes to talk about what the group has been up to for the last decade, and what Entertainment has in store for the future.
The two-part EP that you have in the works is called Horror. The video for “Maggot Church” opens with a quote from intro to the old television show “Tales From the Darkside.” I bring this up to get your thoughts on the EP’s title and the concepts that are at work here. … After watching “Maggot Church” I went down the Youtube rabbit hole, watching episodes of “Tales From the Darkside,” “Friday the 13th,” etc.
Those shows brought out a sense of chasing those childhood thrills of terror and elation at the same time.
I have always been obsessed with the intro to “Tales from the Darkside” — the negative trees, the way the music bends as the world turns dark, and the underlying context of the narration. In a weird way it helped shade the lens through which I see the world. There’s definitely that sense of terror and wonder, something dark lurking beyond you, mixed with childish wonder and elation, but there’s also a harsh existential truth buried beneath it.
Stephen King has a quote: “True horror is the coming undone of something good.” That, to me, is the essence of where we are as a band. When we started coming back out, suddenly I was hit with a lot of people affirming to me, for the first time, that we were something good, and we had completely come undone underneath that. The childish sense of blind self-assuredness had devolved into a sense of doubt, a black cloud hanging over me, like a Kafkaesque maze of conflict. Combine that with my love of camp B-movie horror from the ’80s, and that’s where we’re coming from now.
What prompted you to get the band back together and continue moving forward?
We never really officially broke up, but after touring behind Gender for two years our bass player Tommy bassist left. I moved back to Atlanta from Athens, and we struggled to regain momentum and maintain a reputation. We were working with DISARO Records, which was a huge accomplishment for us, but I lost faith and direction in our songwriting and position. We did meet our synth player Jim during this time though, and played SXSW twice, trying to find a new way forward. But our live presence almost completely dropped off, and I spent time working with Kris Sampson on nurturing our sound through recordings. Pretty soon the indie goth scene that we’d seen and been a part of in New York and Los Angeles started taking off in Atlanta, and I was asked to DJ at a few nights. I also started seeing more like minded musicians at the DKA nights at 529, and Silk Wolfs’ goth nights. That’s also when I started to realize we had a very underground cult following here. But the big moment was in 2016 when we got the opportunity to open for Modern English on the Southeastern dates of their Mesh & Lace Tour. So we grabbed Jen von Schlichten from Black Lodge and Hymen Moments, and went from nothing to the biggest tour of our career. It was unbelievable, we had everything and nothing to prove, and had to rely solely on the strength of our songs and live presence. We came back to Atlanta completely rejuvenated, played two sold-out shows at The EARL in one day, where half the crowd thought we were from the UK, and then we crashed back down to earth, went back out with Modern English in 2017, this time working with Henry Jack from Weary Heads by way of a connection through Dead Register, and we naturally started re-working and improving newer material. Once we came back from that tour we decided it was time.
How did you come work with Tom Ashton at SubVon Studio. Has working with him helped you realize anything new or different about your songwriting and the group’s sound and vision?
I met Tom through a mutual friend at a Peter Murphy show in Atlanta. Then we ran into each other again backstage at the Modern English show at the Earl, and again at the March Violets reunion show at the Masquerade, and the dots started to connect for me. I’m pretty shy when it comes to promoting our music, but once we started re-working our newer material I found the courage to reach out to him for help mixing and mastering the material Kris Sampson had helped us work up with the overdubs we did. He’s been a huge source of support and understanding for us. I originally approached him in a very nonchalant way, but March Violets is the ultimate street cred, and a very different approach from the way we do things. He has really helped to teach me strength and how to desaturate — to lean into the atmosphere of a song but also mind the hook — and to trust myself.
Do you feel like Entertainment is part of a larger community of like minded bands in Atlanta? I ask mostly because I have seen bands like Tears For The Dying and Hip To Death working with Tom Ashton as well. All three of these bands are quite different, aesthetically speaking, but there is an underlying thread of commonality — darkness, post-punk, gothic tendencies. Do you think of these bands as kindred spirits?
I’m pretty sure I introduced them to him, if I remember correctly. I love all those bands. We have all circled each other for years, and worked together pretty frequently. But there’s definitely a more concrete scene developing Out of SubVon, where we all have a place we can work. Honestly, I can remember seeing Hip To Death terrify kids at frat bars in Athens, and I’ve always admired Tears For The Dying from the time they used to rehearse next to us and Snowden in a warehouse off Howell Mill Road. And I think we’ve all developed separately, but we’re all hitting a certain level at the same time.
A little more than a decade has passed since Entertainment released Gender. Aesthetically speaking, how have things changed over time?
Not much, weirdly. I think I’m more inclined to be appealing now, much to the relief of the band. I still look to the artsy tension of bands like the Virgin Prunes and Bauhaus for inspiration, but I’m more interested in allowing people to enjoy us without having to be confronted. Leaning more into Japan and Psychedelic Furs. We were recently referred to as “the bastard child of Swans and Duran Duran,” rather than just “the sound of death,” so I think we’re moving in the right direction.
Do you have a favorite song amid all of the new material?
We have so much unreleased stuff at his point it’s hard to say. If you asked the band I think we’d all say something different, but our upcoming third single, “An Alter of Remembrance,” and the track “Distance” are two we tend to gravitate toward.
Have any of the remixes surprised you or revealed something about the music that you didn’t expect?
Yeah definitely! We’ve been lucky to have so many talented people support us and completely transform our songs. I love hearing how other musicians interpret and manipulate us. At times I am surprised and horrified at how desperate the solo tracks sound, or how small changes can really pull a chorus together in a much more accessible way. They really help put possibilities in place as we decide what the next sound is and get out of our heads.
Do you have a release date in mind for the EPs to arrive?
We have one more single before Horror Part 1 comes out, we’re waiting on a few remixes for that. Then Part 1 comes out in January and a third single and Part 2 come out in February.
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On Thursday, November 12, I spoke with Grammy and Emmy-winning author and filmmaker Robert Gordon about the updated 25th anniversary edition of his book It Came From Memphis (Third Man Books).
Originally published in 1995, It Came From Memphis tells the stories of bold and outlandish characters who brought life to the city’s cultural outer limits—characters that likely won’t won’t be found in other books. Yet each one embodies the indelible spirit of Memphis’ haunting beauty. From the 1950s through the early ’80s, DJ Dewey Phillips, professional wrestler Sputnik Monroe, and groundbreaking artists, musicians, and outsiders such as Alex Chilton, Furry Lewis, Tav Falco, Misty Lavender, Jim Dickinson, and more, are bound by an impressionistic thread, forever weaving them together in time and place. Gordon’s blend of interviews, spellbinding ruminations, and first-hand accounts come together in tales filled with gritty realism and spectral Southern ambiance.
In this second part of RadATL’s interview with former Cro-Mags and current Aggros songwriter and guitarist Parris Mayhew, the conversation turns toward the influence of his father, Aubrey Mayhew. The elder Mayhew was a formidable honky-tonk and country music industry presence. In the 1960s, he worked with the budget label Pickwick Records. Later, he owned the Little Darlin’ and Certron labels. Over the years, he released hits and cult classics, such as Johnny Paycheck’s “(Pardon Me) I’ve Got Someone to Kill,” Stonewall Jackson’s “Pint Of No Return,” and even Clint Eastwood’s “Burning Bridges” b/w “When I Loved Her” single. He was also an aficionado of John F. Kennedy memorabilia. In 1970, he was the highest bidder in an auction for the Texas School Book Depository building in Dallas—the building from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired the bullet that killed President Kennedy on November 22, 1963. His influence bears a lifelong impression on Parris, whom, since his father’s passing in 2009, has fought his legal battles, working toward closing his estate.
Chad Radford: “Chaos Magic”—the song and the video—have some very cinematic qualities to them. Have you considered moving into composing soundtracks for films?
I’ve thought about it, and I’ll probably end up doing it soon. I am currently developing a feature-length film—perhaps a series—a documentary about my father. He has a significant history, and I’ve been assessing how it will be structured. Aside from the music that he produced, I would create my own soundtrack around it. Our stories are kind of parallel. Any story about him includes me, especially towards the end of his life, when I was fighting his legal battles for him. I figure the incorporation of a noteworthy musical son of a noteworthy musical man would be an interesting part of the story.
Your father was a formidable country music mover and shaker. How did he and the music that he worked with influence you?
Probably the best lesson that my father ever taught me is that you don’t have to do anything the way anyone else does it. When I was in high school, everybody I knew was thinking about careers and getting married. One of my good friends during the ‘80s was Peter Steele from Type O Negative. We used to have conversations with him and Louie—I loved their music, and I would always say “you guys are going to be big.” But they were both adamant that they would never go on tour. They had union jobs with benefits, health insurance, and all that stuff. That was the life they had been taught, and once they had it, they coveted it and would never let it go. When Peter started Type O Negative, the band rule was you had to live on his block, to be close, and you had to agree to never go on tour. My mindset was never like that. I never once thought about my couch, having a home, getting a job. To a large extent, I’m still like that. I work in the film business as a camera operator. Most people think of that as a job, but I don’t. I am amazed every time I get a check. I show up to these places; there are like 80 other people there, all this amazing equipment, and actors. We assemble the scenes, shoot them, and then we go home. Then I get a check for it!
My dad also taught me that there’s a bigger world out there. He was a traveling man, and half of my life I didn’t know what he did for a living. I knew he did something, but he never went to a job, never had a schedule.
The thing I love about the film business is that it’s so similar to the music business: You’re around creative people, you get to be creative, but there aren’t four other guys trying to take credit for what you just did.
Just this morning, a Cro-Mags fan—someone who works in an archive in Washington, D.C.—sent me a stack of documents about my dad purchasing the Texas School Book Depository building. There’s one document that I’d never seen. It’s a commentary and observation of what happened the day of the auction for the building. You would think something like that would be very clinical, but the guy describes my father as this mysterious person who sat in the back, was elegantly dressed, and commanded the room. You knew something was going to happen with him before he started bidding. Then he won the auction, and the press swarmed him. It’s like reading a novel. For me—his son—I wasn’t surprised by the wording at all. I speak quite often with the producer of an HBO show about country music, called Tales From the Tour Bus, presented by Mike Judge. When they started doing interviews with people, talking about Johnny Paycheck, almost everybody they interviewed said you shouldn’t even do a movie about Paycheck. You should do it about Mayhew. He was way more interesting. So they reached out to me.
Is this the film project you mentioned working on earlier?
I am passively working on it. My father died in ‘09. His estate is still open, but we hope to close it this year. It’s still open because legal battles keep coming up. I fought lawsuits in Dallas against Texas oil millionaires. I fought lawsuits in Nashville against millionaire bootleggers, and I won both cases. When my father was at the end of his life, I basically took over his battles. After he passed away, I continued. It’s well worthwhile—I’m trying to protect his legacy.
I started speaking to Mike Judge’s producer about first doing a documentary series, which is just a natural for becoming a drama. So that’s where we are. I spoke with him about it a week ago; he’s looking for money backers. I don’t know which way it’ll go, but either way, I can’t work on it until after my father’s estate is closed. I don’t want to waive any flags and have people trying to sue me again.
Have you visited the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas?
I have. It’s an extraordinary thing. I didn’t realize the relevance of what my father did by saving the building until I was standing in Dealey Plaza. My father didn’t just save a building, he saved the déjà vu for millions of people. Literally, I came around the corner and was standing in Dealey Plaza, and my head started turning. I had been there a thousand times: There’s the grassy knoll, there’s the bridge where the cop was standing. There’s the fence where the dark man was supposedly standing with the rifle. Then my head panned over to the building, and my eyes went right to the sixth floor—the window on the right. I could’ve hit it with a baseball. Then I looked over my right shoulder and could see the limousine coming around the corner. That moment of déjà vu—from seeing the Zapruder film that we’ve all seen a thousand times. I relived that entire thing in 60 seconds. That’s history! My father recognized that saving that building was saving that moment. And that’s what my father did. He was a music man, he was an entertainer, and he recognized that 60 seconds as something that people should be able to experience. Meanwhile, the entire city of Dallas was trying to run him out of town.
Two other bidders wanted to tear it down. The City of Dallas wanted it torn down. They planned to bulldoze the grassy Knoll, reverse the traffic on the street out front, so it doesn’t look or feel the same way. Of course, after they ran my dad out of town, they put in a museum. The Dealey family, who owns Dealey Plaza, is a Texas society family. Their name is forever associated with the murder of a president, so they want that erased. Most people don’t know this, but the Dealey family owns TheDallas Morning News, who began a press campaign against my father, calling him a hillbilly, which couldn’t be further from the truth. All you have to do is read that document that was sent to me this morning. They described him as this striking, intelligent character. The Dallas Morning News portrayed my father as a hillbilly—someone who was going to open a chicken restaurant in the building called Kennedy Fried Chicken. It was absurd.
I’d never made the connection between the Dealey family that owns the paper and Dealey Plaza.
And a lot of people haven’t made the connection with the guy whom my father bought the building from—D.H. Byrd—whose lifelong friend and schoolmate was Lyndon Johnson. Who was the one person in the world who benefited from Kennedy’s assassination? Lyndon Johnson! The guy who owned the building he was shot from was Byrd?!?! Are you fucking kidding me?
Is the building still a part of your father’s estate?
No. The city of Dallas took it from him. It’s the most visited and most photographed building in Texas, even more than the Alamo. The city owes all of those tourists dollars to somebody they ran out of town. And my father’s name isn’t even on a plaque on the front of the building. Byrd’s name is on the front of it because he’s a Dallasite. It’s a good old boys club down there.
For Parris Mayhew, life under quarantine conditions has not passed idly by. A camera operator in the film industry by trade, Mayhew is best known as a guitar player, songwriter, and original member of New York City’s whiplash hardcore torchbearers the Cro-Mags.
The group’s story is riddled with lineup changes, inner-band squabbles, and just as many groundbreaking albums as forgettable releases, blending elements of hardcore, punk, and thrash metal. Just as Bad Brains adopted Rastafarianism, Cro-Mags singer John Joseph and bass player Harley Flanagan embraced Hare Krishna philosophies.
In June, Flanagan released Cro-Mags’ In the Beginning LP via Orchard Records—the first album released under the group’s name in two decades. After a 2019 lawsuit, vocalist John Joseph and drummer Mackie Jayson have continued playing live under the name Cro-Mags “JM.”
Mayhew served as principal songwriter for the Cro-Mags’ most influential albums—The Age of Quarrel (1986), Best Wishes (1989), and Revenge (2000)—but parted ways with the group long ago. In October he returned from his long silence to release “Chaos Magic,” a new six-minute instrumental song and video under the name Aggros.
In this two-part interview, Mayhew talks about the music and experiences that inspired “Chaos Magic,” and his move away from his past with the Cro-Mags on his own terms.
Chad Radford: The pandemic has been a trying time, but it has also played to my strengths: I’ve had time to focus on projects that have been on hold for too long, now that I don’t have to interact with the outside world. How are you holding up in quarantine?
Parris Mayhew: It’s an extraordinary kind of shock, like someone shook us all and said, “This is what life could be!” A lot of people are struggling, and people are getting sick. But, for example, I worked right up to the day of lockdown. After a month, when I got used to the idea of leisure time, I immersed myself in several projects. I have a pinboard with two movie ideas, and another pinboard with a television pilot idea. Over the years, I’ve been slowly assembling songs one at a time. When I found myself with all this time I began addressing those things in more than a peripheral way.
I spent 22 days shooting the “Chaos Magic” video, which is insane. I shot it by myself two-to-five hours at a time, and it was so exhausting that I couldn’t shoot for any longer than that. Then I immersed myself in editing. In one day, I went from a guy who used to be in a band to a person with a legitimate release. Probably none of that would’ve happened otherwise. I work on television shows, and got a call this morning asking: “Will you test today and start working tomorrow? That’s how quickly it happens. That’s been my life for the past 20 years, working on sets for 13 hours a day, five days a week, and sleeping away the weekends. I find myself with very little time. Your comment about realigning priorities based on having time—that has made a huge difference. And here we are having a conversation about my new song because of it.
On the surface, “Chaos Magic” is a somewhat different approach from what you took with Cro-Mags songs.
People have asked if I intended to make instrumental music. I didn’t realize this until maybe last night when I was lying in bed: I’ve always written my music as if it was instrumental music. Even with the Cro-Mags, I wrote songs to be and feel complete. All I cared about was making the music as heavy and as fast as I could. I tried to get out these complete musical thoughts. When it came time to have a singer—whether it was Eric Casanova, John or Harley—I always thought, how can I get the singer to sing on it and be as unobtrusive as possible? When I wrote “Chaos Magic,” I did it with the same thing in mind.
I puzzled together “Chaos Magic” from parts that I wrote over the years. I tried to have the mindset of myself when I was 15 or 16, standing in the audience looking up at the stage. I even put breaks in the song to rest. I knew that I would be going berserk for 45 seconds, and I’d need a break to take a breath, and then it starts again. I would just go crazy for another 45 seconds, and needed another break. That sounds a little abstract, but I literally thought of it that way. Playing and performing live is an athletic event. You realize that if you don’t put breaks in there your arm will fall off.
I remember playing songs that I wrote for Revenge when we were on tour. I would get to a point where I would just let a chord ring out—I would literally shake my right arm off while that chord rang out. Then I’d start again, like I was playing to the peak of my physical ability every night, just to complete some of those songs. I wouldn’t say “Chaos Magic” is written to the peak of my physical ability, though. It’s just a different kind of journey. It’s not such an athletic event as it is chapters. What I’ve found gratifying is that the song is almost six minutes long, but almost nobody has commented on how long it is.
I watched the video and thought: “There you are playing bass, wearing classic hardcore gear … a guitar player wearing a Cheap Trick T-shirt … This must be the personification of crossover. Later, I read that each one represents different phases of your life. … I don’t see how it could be less than six minutes.
Your observation about crossover is relevant, because I’m just a fan of music. I love Cheap Trick as much as I love Motörhead and the Bad Brains. It’s personally gratifying when I am acknowledged by my peers, and I enjoyed giving nods to my peers in the video—Cheap Trick and Motörhead and so on.
When I was 15 or something, I went with my friend Paul Dordal—an original member of the Cro-Mags who came up with the song title “World Peace,” and wrote the Murphy’s Law songs “California Pipeline” and “Skinhead Rebel.” He gave them to Murphy’s Law as a gift. He said, “Let’s go see this band called the Mob, I think you’ll like them.” So we went to A7 on Avenue A and 7th Street—this little club that had no windows. It had a piece of loose-leaf paper on the front with the band names written in pen—$3 to get in. Bands would start playing at like 10 p.m., and the last band would go on at like 6 a.m. It was totally illegal, and that’s just the way it was.
I’m sure we had many cans of Foster’s lager beer before we went in. The place was glowing in the most perfect way that it can when you’ve had a bunch of beers. I stood in front of the guitar player, Jack Flanagan, who was a peculiar site at a punk rock club. He was a redhead, and had a gigantic red afro. He was also playing a B.C. Rich. They burst into a song and his right hand disappeared! He was moving so fast that it was a blur. I’d never seen anything like that, and I’ve never forgotten it. When I made the “Chaos Magic” video I was thinking about this part, and how fast I had to strum just to articulate it in time. When I shot my hand doing that part, I thought of Jack Flanagan, and I 100% was trying to recreate that moment when I was 15 years old.
Playing a Rickenbacker bass is a combination of my love for Geddy Lee, Chris Squire, and Lemmy. I thought about what T-shirts I would wear, the only one I was firm about wearing was the Motörhead shirt. Motörhead is absolutely the biggest influence on me both musically and physically. When I play, it’s the physical imitation of Lemmy, and I always say that my right hand is Lemmy and my left hand is Rush. Somehow it becomes this weird mix. If I did a breakdown of the songs on the first Cro-Mags album you would be amazed at where they came from. “Sign Of The Times” is basically “Anthem” by Rush backwards. Alex Lifeson does this thing at the beginning of the song, he rides the E chord high and then low. I remember thinking I can’t believe he’s making this amazing riff with just one chord! So I played it backwards, and instead of going high-low, I went low-high, but I played the right hand like Lemmy. So it’s like the same song flipped upside down and played by Lemmy.
The crawl at the end of the “Chaos Magic” video says COBZ plays drums …
COBZ is the drummer on this track, and he probably plays on four other songs that I’ll eventually release. There will be other drummers, too. COBZ is a Brooklynite. He’s got his own business, and he has kids. He’s got a busy life so he doesn’t prioritize music, but he is an extraordinary musician.
I have another track with Roy Mayorga from Stone Sour, and there will be others. I did it this time without trying to teach somebody how to play like me. To a large extent, when you hear the bass part on “Chaos Magic” you can’t play it kind of like that. You have to play it exactly like that. The drum beats are built into the bass rhythm. A lot of drummers have a repertoire of beats in their head, and they’ll start playing a beat without listening to what you’re playing. You literally have to place every bass drum and snare drum with my right hand, or you’re not playing the song. Otherwise it won’t make any sense.
I did that when Cro-Mags recorded Best Wishes and Revenge, too. When we recorded the basic tracks the only thing anybody heard in their headphones was me. When we played live, the only thing in the monitors was the bass drum, the snare drum, and me … Except for Harley’s monitor, he would have his vocals, but we always did a careful monitor set up so we wouldn’t hear anything but my guitar and the drums, and us two locking. I was the pace card. I basically did the same thing with “Chaos Magic.” I played everything, and in my opinion it couldn’t have come out better because it’s the song. It’s not about skill—I guess it’s about skill to an extent—because my playing and my writing go hand-in-hand, and whenever we would go on tour with the Cro-Mags, we took on new musicians, whether it be Rocky George, Bobby the Handball, Rob Buckley, Doug Holland, or any of the number of people that would play. I would always spend like two months teaching people how to play the songs. They couldn’t just pick it up off the recordings, because it’s a peculiar thing.
I literally blasted out all the tracks for “Chaos Magic” in one afternoon. It was the same thing I did with Revenge. I did all the guitars for the entire album in three days. Of course, we took eight days to do bass tracks, and we were in the studio for nine months. But I did all my tracks in three days.
You mentioned you like getting feedback from your peers. Have you heard from any of your former Cro-Mags bandmates about “Chaos Magic?”
I don’t have any contact with any of them. I did get an email … It doesn’t take much to get Harley to say unkind things online. But apparently this was fuel for him. Most people know that I don’t care or don’t want to see it, so no one forwarded it to me, or relayed what he said. They just say he wasn’t very positive, which I didn’t expect. He’s the kind of person who’s only happy when other people aren’t happy.
I see social media posts from Harley and John. They project a lot of positivity into the world. But when it comes to each other things turn negative quickly.
You write a book called The PMA Effect, and then spend the rest of your life being negative? I’ve observed that kind of thing with John for many years—espousing to be a religious person, based on a kind and loving religion. John’s thing with Hare Krishna is a strange offshoot. It’s like a bastardization of the Hindu religion: They recruit a lot of people by appealing to what they call the warrior side. They say that some people are missionaries and some people are warriors. That’s why the ranks of the Hare Krishnas are lined with lots of ex-cons. Like John!
It was always funny to me, whenever I met any of them through our encounters, almost all of them, within the first few minutes of putting their hands together and greeting you with a soft voice, would start saying, “Yeah, back when I used to fuck motherfuckers up! Back when I was serving time in the pen!” It almost always reverted to that.
Harley is the main reason why there will never be a Cro-Mags. People can say, “There is a Cro-Mags. They’re putting out records.” But certainly that’s not the Cro-Mags that people buy into. He likes to say publicly that the reason there isn’t one is because I won’t participate, and he wants to bury the hatchet. Be nice and all that kind of stuff—we’re all grown men …
Then he’ll go and make statements endlessly. He has a whole platform for making statements that diminish everybody’s role in the band—primarily mine. He doesn’t say anything about Doug because he doesn’t see Doug as a threat. But when you look at the credits on TheAge Of Quarrel it says all songs written by Parris Mayhew and Harley Flanagan. My name is first, and the reason my name is first is because I am the primary songwriter. But he puts out a press release six months ago that says “35 years ago, I wrote an album …”
How does he expect there to be any kind of reconciliation when his entire platform is based on diminishing other people? The truth is, I have outgrown him. I outgrew him long ago. For a long time, I had an attachment to him because of my pride in my music. But one thing I realized when we were tracking basic tracks for Revenge, Harley didn’t even know some of the songs. I did the basic tracks with the drummer Dave DiCenso. Harley learned them and subsequently played bass on them afterwards. It wasn’t until I was in the recording studio playing these songs that I wrote by myself with the drummer, when I said to myself, “I could have done this by myself.”
The reason we kept returning to each other was because I made this connection between what I achieved in music with him, and I believed his hype of diminishing me. I believed it to a certain extent. I felt that we were connected by it. This time, I thought, I’m going to do it the way I have always done it, but without him. The results are for other people to determine. But I am happy about them. I am as proud of “Chaos Magic” as I am with anything I have ever done?
You can hear the The Age Of Quarrel, Best Wishes, and Revenge DNA in the riffs, guitar tones, and melodies of “Chaos Magic.” I don’t hate Harely’s new Cro-Mags album, In The Beginning, but it’s different. The values of what you’re doing with Aggros are more closely aligned with where the music came from in the first place—pushing forward into new musical terrain by looking inward.
When we got together to do Revenge, I didn’t want to call it Cro-Mags. At first we called it White Devil. I kept saying to Harley that I wasn’t interested in playing TheAge Of Quarrel and Best Wishes again. We can certainly play those songs. I love them. But I only want to do anything if we make new music.
I also wanted to disconnect myself from 10 years of John touring and playing our music in a pitiful way. I say pitiful because when Harley and I left off with Cro-Mags we were playing festivals in Europe, and headlining. John has resigned the name Cro-Mags to an opening act, playing in small clubs. I wanted to separate myself from that degradation. I perceived it that way because it was my music. So we concentrated on writing something new, and I wanted it to be under a new moniker—White Devil. But as soon as we started playing gigs all the advertisements said Cro-Mags are White Devil. Literally every flyer and anything you saw, the word Cro-Mags was just as big White Devil. We were fighting a battle that was unwinnable. Just today I did an Instagram post where I said something like, nostalgia is an undefeatable foe. You can try to fight it and get washed away. It’s like a tidal wave. If you stand against it, it’ll wash you away until you’re not even noticed. Or you can embrace it—ride it. I don’t shuck off Cro-Mags. I am proud of it. I have just outgrown it, and I’m moving on.
The situation says something about the power of branding, too. The name Cro-Mags will always draw a crowd, because the songs are good, and it has good branding. But when I look at the Aggros logo, I see the same creative hand at work.
I created the logo for the Cro-Mags. I have the original paste ups! Back before computers and stuff, we would actually cut, paste, and put ink on paper. I have the mock-up for the original Cro-Mags cassette. I did it by hand—I have a degree in fine arts.
When I was going to do my logo, I wanted it to be familiar and I wanted it to be me. And to a large extent, the truth is, it was just an imitation of the Motörhead logo anyway! We even toyed with putting umlauts on it. We were kids!
I recently came across an interview where you said that you loved playing music with Harley Flanagan more than anyone you’ve ever played with, but you also hope that you never see him again. Has that changed?
At that time, I was still having a hard time separating him from my abilities. He really did a number on me. If somebody says something to you over and over, you start to believe it. In that same interview, I might’ve said that I would pick up my guitar and play a riff for him, and he would light up! We would play together for hours. To me, that was us, as opposed to us playing my song. The point is, if he wasn’t sitting there I’d still be playing the same song. And I never realized that until I made Revenge. I have finally been able to let all that go, and it’s still true. I still loved playing with Harley. It was great, but I don’t need that.
Do you have a schedule for releasing an Aggros full-length?
No. I don’t have people sitting behind desks telling me what to do. It’s not on a label, so it’s not a commercial venture. It’s just me doing it whenever I feel like doing it, but I have a number of tracks recorded and will release the next one when I finish the next video. Who knows how long that’ll take; I have something to live up to now with “Chaos Magic.”
My wife and I have an agency and we’re basically treating the band like a client to the agency. Once the second video is out we’ll construct all the elements for a 7-inch with probably four songs. Vinyl only. Downloads will be on the website. Hopefully there will be a number of 7-inches to come out, perhaps there’ll be an album collection of the singles, like Siouxsie and the Banshees did. Maybe I’ll pick up musicians as we go, and maybe we’ll re-record all the songs with singing. Or maybe we won’t. I don’t know. We’ll see. “Chaos Magic” was online for an hour and known people from known bands were texting me saying, “I want in.”
I think of the band as like Daft Punk or Ghost. There’s a creative center, and then other people are brought in. It’s presented as a band and why not? On Revenge, Cro-Mags wasn’t a band. It was me and Harley. We were the creative center, and we hired Bobby the Handball, Rocky George, or whoever it happened to be at the time. I’m approaching it that way. When this is seen on stage, it’ll be presented as a band. It will be a great band, whoever it is, but who knows who it’ll be, every time you see me.