Tuesday, February 14, 2012

[interview] An Oral History of Powerviolence

WHERE'S THE UNITY? Virtually everyone cites Infest, from Valencia, CA, as the primary influence on the sound that would become known as powerviolence. Infest fused the youth crew-styled hardcore of the time (1986) and the proto-grind fastcore of Siege, Impact Unit (with a pre-Mighty Mighty Bosstones Dicky Barrett), Holland's Pandemonium and Vancouver's Neos into short, undeniably violent-sounding bursts. Towards the end of Infest, guitarist Matt Domino started playing with Eric Wood of Pissed Happy Children in Neanderthal, the band that would first coin the term "powerviolence."

Eric Wood (PHC, Neanderthal, Man Is the Bastard, Bastard Noise): Living in southern California, I was lucky to get to see [Infest] tons of times. They were fucking blitzing power. Their first demo was a primitive recording but you could feel that everything was there, the emotion and the speed. They were a great band; everyone loved them. It's a shame they didn't stay together.

Chris Dodge (Spazz, Despise You, Slap a Ham Records): I saw Infest for the first time around 1988. Nobody knew who they were and I think a lot of people were confused by them. They were harsher and faster than most bands, even in '88. I really liked them, and tracked down their demo soon after.

Wood: Me and Matt Domino kinda came from different backgrounds. I'm a little older than Matt and I was raised on things like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Yes, early Alice Cooper, then I was into Raw Power, Zero Boys, Toxic Reasons, then Infest. In Neanderthal, we didn't take a lot of direct influence; we just tried to vibe it. We tried to be freaks in our minds and develop our own thing. I was right out of PHC and he was still in Infest; at the same time I was doing an instrumental bass and drums thing called Cyclops. There were a lot of influences in what we were doing at the time and in what we grew up with.

Parts of Neanderthal's "Fighting Music" 7-inch hit grindcore tempos and song lengths ("Built for Brutality," 16 seconds), but without the overt metal influence of the Earache grind bands. The fast stuff owed more to hardcore punk, while metal influenced the sludgy breakdowns and progressive flourishes.

Evan Garner (Burned Up Bled Dry): I think that powerviolence represented the DIY punk side of grindcore, bands like us that grew up listening to Black Flag, old D.R.I., old C.O.C., things like that, while grindcore represented a more death metal, Napalm Death side of the coin—not that Scum isn't one of my favorite records ever! I think it goes deeper to intent and lyrics and such. More of a punk approach than a metal one: basement shows, DIY ethics, less than perfect records.

Wood: I was never anti-metal. I really liked early Prong, Primitive Origins and Force Fed. Early Obituary is fantastic. Even something like Bathory, him being a one-piece was fascinating to me because he was not being suppressed by anything, including a lack of personnel. I would put things like the Crumbsuckers from New York City. Actually, the Liberty and Justice-era of Agnostic Front, to me, was the most progressive era of their writing, and it was when they had moved into a metal-ish environment. They were written off as being followers but that fuckin' record has phenomenal composition. That was a big influence on me.

Chris Dodge, formerly in Berkeley funny-punks Stikky, started up a DIY label, Slap a Ham, after leaving the melodic hardcore band No Use for a Name in 1989. Records from the Melvins and Fu Manchu were among early Slap a Ham releases, along with Wood's PHC and Neanderthal. Soon, Slap a Ham was putting out records from almost all of the bands associated with the burgeoning powerviolence movement.

Dodge: I started the label to help out bands that I liked who I didn't think were getting the recognition they deserved. NUFAN was one of them. When I put out their 7-inch, at that point I was out of the band but I still wanted to help them because I thought they were great. They didn't have any interest from other labels at all. Same with the Melvins; I became friends with them when they moved to San Francisco from Washington. Besides Boner [Records], there wasn't a whole lot of interest; they played a lot of crappy local shows to a handful of people. My primary focus became what turned into the powerviolence scene. I loved the music and the people in the bands, but again, there wasn't really anyone else interested in working with them at the time. Some of the bands, like Capitalist Casualties and No Comment, were around for at least five years without any label interest before I put out their records. I couldn't believe how great these bands were and I was stunned that they couldn't get anyone to help them release anything.

Wood: The Kubby Hole in Pomona, CA, where Neanderthal practiced, was where "powerviolence" was said for the first time in late 1989. I must give Matt Domino 100% of the credit. We were talking like, "We need to come up with our own trip. We don't want to be lumped into hardcore, punk, any subgenre." We wanted to come up with our own description of our sound, and out of the blue he just said "fuckin' powerviolence." Then it was "west coast powerviolence." We were trying to give it a sense of humor, like "our geographical location is better than yours," and give it a serious brutality.

Neanderthal eventually morphed into Man Is the Bastard, a massive conglomeration of multiple bassist and vocalists, electronic noise, iconographic imagery and slogans, and a radical pro-animal, pro-nature, pro-female platform.

Wood: It was a fluke that I met [Henry] Barnes [MITB noise/electronics]; we worked different shifts at this same bakery. I remember going to his house and seeing these boxes, which were the caveman electronics, and as soon as I heard them and he told me how he was attempting to simulate nature or bird sounds with them, I was like "you're fuckin' in our band, dude. This shit is sick." I had to steal him from anyone who would ever hear these boxes. Luckily no one seemed to understand it. Our whole thing was like: mellow human, ultra-megaton brutal music. Progressive brutality.

Professor Cantaloupe (Gasp): MITB had an artful take on the dichotomy of powerviolence, in that they embraced peace, love, equality and respect to all living creatures as priority number one while belting out burly, complex prog-punk in an I'm-gonna-kick-your-ass kind of way. They encouraged the blurring of gender roles and generalizations of all kinds—I mean, teenage boys all across the globe were turned on to sticky sweet Hello Kitty imagery. How righteous is that?

Goretex (Non-Phixion): MITB are one of those bands like Crass or Black Flag to me, not only for how brutal they were—you really felt like they believed what they were talking about. They were all about getting free. Whether they were talking about an elephant on a rampage or San Salvadorian drug dealers getting a thumbs-up from the President, they delivered the goods.

"H.S.M.P." ("Hispanic small man power"), from a split with Aunt Mary, recounted the events of MITB's first-ever show and officially name-checked powerviolence as a movement.

Wood: That night, there was a lot of shit-talking and fighting going on in one area of the crowd. This little Hispanic man, this little Ranchero dude at the bar, totally mellow, stood up and walked into the crowd and said "Please! Please! We must all be friends!" He reached out to this violent air in the room in an attempt to calm it, and actually did. He really dropped the tension in the room by being an outsider inserting himself into a foreign group and spreading goodwill. When [Aaron] Kenyon witnessed that, he completely tripped out. On that track, Kenyon cites the premiere powerviolence quintet that shaped that movement: Crossed Out, No Comment, Manpig, Capitalist Casualties, Man Is the Bastard. Those were the bands that existed that were powerviolence.

Through the early '90s, new labels like Six Weeks, Pessimizer and Sound Pollution joined Slap a Ham in putting out records from new bands that were inspired by the first wave of powerviolence, including Dodge's own contribution, Spazz. Slap a Ham released several of the classics of the genre, including No Comment's vicious "Downsided" 7-inch, the truly bizarre Drome Triler of Puzzle Zoo People by Gasp, and the Bllleeeeaaauuurr-rrgghhh! series of compilations that crammed 70+ bands onto one 7-inch record.

Dodge: [No Comment] were an enigma. I think they started around '87 or so. I got their demo by chance and it was one of my favorites, but I figured they had broken up. Several years later I was reviewing stuff for Maximumrocknroll and a copy of their self-released first 7-inch came in. I couldn't believe they were still playing, so I wrote to them immediately because I wanted to help them put out more. "Downsided" was supposed to be an LP, but they only ended up writing six minutes of material, so it became a 7-inch instead. It's one of my all-time favorite releases. Andy [Beattie] was later in MITB. He's been involved in a few post-MITB projects, but I haven't seen any of them in maybe five years.

Professor Cantaloupe: It was interesting watching the cross-pollination of genres at the time. Emo was merging with hardcore punk, folk with noise; Men's Recovery Project were twisting the perceptions of Born Against fans. And we were just exploring stuff that was exciting to us. Now flash forward nine years and you've got all kinds of crazy hybrid subgenres with more than just a few bands operating in each. I mean, in 1998 would you have predicted such a huge acceptance of noise like we have today? It makes me wonder what would have happened if we had done another full-length with the material we were working on just before our demise. That stuff was pretty far out and varied and didn't get recorded. In early 2006 we made an attempt at picking up where we left off in 1999, but those creative differences reared their ugly heads and pretty much closed the book for good.

Dodge: [Drome Triler was] another unappreciated album when it came out. It seems like people are just now showing an interest posthumously. Their early stuff was more straightforward grind, and they eventually progressed into whacked-out psychedelic noise. They broke up soon after the LP was released. Cynthia, who was the original Gasp bass player, is doing vocals for Despise You now.

The first of six annual Fiesta Grande fests took place on January 2, 1993, with a lineup of Assück, Man Is the Bastard, No Comment, Crossed Out, Capitalist Casualties and Plutocracy. Subsequent lineups would include straight-up grindcore (Phobia, Discordance Axis) and sludge (Cavity, Noothgrush), but always featured powerviolence bands. MITB played the first four; Capitalist Casualties played all of them.

Dodge: Most of the powerviolence bands didn't really have places to play and were usually out of place on a lot of other punk shows. I think Capitalist Casualties played with Green Day a few times, if that gives you an idea of what the climate of the punk scene was like at the time. Assück was touring and Ken Sanderson was booking Gilman at the time. I was talking to him about getting some of the SoCal powerviolence bands up to play with them, and I think he was the one who suggested making it a Slap a Ham label showcase of sorts. It was the first time all of those bands had played together, and they were all finally starting to create their own scene.

Wood: The first one stands out in my mind because it was the first, it was a new concept, and I don't believe there was ever a better lineup. I had to pull double duty with MITB and Crossed Out on the first one, but it was the most pleasurable double duty I've ever had.

Richard Johnson (Enemy Soil): Fiesta Grande 5 was the first show we played with the new bass player that we had at the time. When we confirmed with Chris that we would play the fest, we hadn't practiced even once with the new lineup, but there was no way we would have said, "Thanks, but we're not ready to play a show of that magnitude." Fuck that! We had recently been fortunate enough to discover Excruciating Terror and we were obsessed with their Expression of Pain album. We were as excited about playing on the same day as Excruciating Terror as we were about playing the fest at all. In Berkeley, as we made our way on foot from the last BART stop to Gilman Street, someone unexpectedly walked out of his house into his driveway as we passed and gave us directions to the club. It turned out to be none other than [Dead Kennedys bassist] Klaus Flouride. This was after we ran into Slight Slappers from Japan at an earlier subway station. We exchanged band stickers, I opened my guitar case and slapped a Slight Slappers sticker on my axe, and the Japanese all clapped in approval. We hadn't even gotten to Gilman yet that night and were already having the time of our lives!
Finally, we banged through our set as best we could and hoped that we were at least half-decent in the eyes of the attendees and especially the other bands, not the least of which Spazz. We didn't want to look like a bunch of chumps in front of them, or Discordance Axis, or anybody else that took their grindcore seriously that night. We saw how much of a coming together Fiesta Grande was. I ran into a troupe of French-Canadian punks there; Bill Yurkiewicz, who at the time hailed from Relapse and Exit-13, was there filming. On the way back home, we met the guys from Hellnation during an airport layover. I could go on. A lot of good came out of that fest for us. Whatever you want to label the music on offer at Fiesta Grande, if nothing else it was a magnet that helped pull together a community.

Dodge: I'd been wanting to start another thrash band forever, but didn't know anyone who was free to start one until after the first Fiesta Grande. Max [Ward] from Plutocracy had mentioned a fastcore band he was starting with Dan [Lactose] from Sheep Squeeze, and he said they needed a bass player. Max and Dan had already written 10 songs, so we practiced once, recorded them, and put it out as our first 7-inch. A bit premature, but oh well. We were originally called Gash, but decided to change it. I suggested Spasm, but there was already an east coast band called Spasm, so I suggested Spazz, and it fit.

Spazz were every bit as brutal as any of the other powerviolence bands, but instead of MITB's politics or Crossed Out's personal rage, they loaded their records with references to kung-fu movies and skateboarding, cameos from Kool Keith and a banjo player, and tons of inside jokes.

Dodge: The fact that my label was called Slap a Ham is proof of what a goofball I am. When I was starting my label, I remember thinking how funny it would be if some of the world's most brutal bands all wanted to be on a label with a ridiculous, non-brutal name. A lot of the humor in Spazz was the result of boredom. We were pretty sick of how generic everything was in the scene, so a lot of our lyrics were pop-culture references and jokes about our friends and came out sounding like gibberish because no one but us had any clue what we were talking about.

As Spazz became popular and Fiesta Grande became a yearly event, powerviolence bands began to appear in other parts of the country and, eventually, other parts of the world.

Garner: The west coast powerviolence bands weren't as much of an overt influence as they were sort of kindred souls—like, "Oh, other folks who love the first D.R.I. record." We thought that we played hardcore punk, just like all the bands that were part of the scene that we were a part of: Man Is the Bastard, Capitalist Casualties, Copout, Los Crudos and all the other bands that we enjoyed.

Steve Makita (Apartment 213): You always hear these stories like, "Oh, Cleveland, those guys are all mean and terrible." If you come to Cleveland for 15 minutes, you'll know why we're mean and terrible. I can't believe we don't have the highest suicide rate in the country. It's the most mundane, boring, backwards city. It's home and we make the best of it, but it makes us angry so we write songs about it. Our good friend Chris Pellow, who was in Ringworm and was in Apartment 213 for a while, turned me on to PHC, MITB, No Comment, and I was like, "This is it." I liked that it could be noisy and sloppy, it wasn't like, "Hey, let's tighten it up and try to get on Victory." Keep it loose and go nuts. When we started 213, it was to kill the boredom that comes from Cleveland.

Andrew Orlando (Black Army Jacket, Monkeybite zine): Our original influences were more towards early Napalm Death, Discharge, Septic Death, Infest and NYHC. Once we started touring a little on the west coast, we got heavily influenced by [west coast powerviolence]. Just meeting some of the amazing bands and people like Spazz, Benumb, Noothgrush and Man Is the Bastard had a strong influence on all of us as people. We got to play many shows with great Japanese bands: Slight Slappers, Senseless Apocalypse, Corrupted, Hellchild. It was cool to see underground hardcore music blossoming in all corners of the earth. Gary from Noothgrush and I started Monkeybite to document this scene of bands that we felt were ignored by some of the more "established" zines at the time like MRR.

If a movement that wasn't really a movement and only officially had a handful of bands can come to an end, then powerviolence came to an end in the late '90s. Man Is the Bastard broke up in 1997. The next year marked the final Fiesta Grande, the final Slap a Ham release (Otophobia's Malignant), and Spazz's final show. Gasp, Black Army Jacket and countless other bands broke up around the same time. Post-Spazz, Chris Dodge has been making experimental music, collaborating with Dave Witte in East West Blast Test, and recently joined reformed grinders Despise You. Eric Wood plays in Bastard Noise with Henry Barnes and Bill Nelson.

Dodge: Spazz called it quits officially once I knew I was going to move to L.A. The timing was good; I think if we had kept going, we would have just released the same-sounding record year after year. Everyone wasn't quite sick of us yet, so I think it's best that we quit while we were ahead, instead of having everyone think, "Oh my god, finally!" The same with Slap a Ham. I couldn't afford to run the label any more. It was close to bankrupting me, and I had gotten so far in debt I had to stop. But at the same time, I had started the label to help out all of these bands who weren't getting the recognition they deserved, and by the time I quit the label there were more than enough grind/thrash/hardcore/powerviolence labels out there who were competing to release stuff, so clearly Slap a Ham wasn't needed like in the early days, and it had served its purpose. I don't miss it at all, so that tells me it's good that I stopped when I did.

Wood: A lot of bands that think they are [powerviolence] today—they fucking are not. The two that exist today, because they get the psychological aspect of it, are Apartment 213 from Cleveland and the Endless Blockade from Toronto. They totally get it. That is powerviolence. And that's where I draw the line.

Andy Nolan (The Endless Blockade): [Powerviolence is] the music that really drew me in during that early- to mid-'90s black spot of DIY hardcore, when faux humanism, tolerance for morons, celebrations of inadequacies and screen printed manila envelopes were de rigueur. It cut through the bullshit and laid waste to everything in its path; it synthesized Heresy, Neos, Ripcord, Larm, Impact Unit and many other greats perfectly, updating them for a new era and always keeping an eye on the roots that grew before. As for being aligned with powerviolence, I'd say we're a powerviolence-influenced band, or a neo-powerviolence band. My favorite record of the era is definitely No Comment's "Downsided." You can't fake that despondent rage.

Beau Beasley (Insect Warfare): Of all the first wave powerviolence bands, No Comment has had the biggest impact on me. They took all the things I loved about D.R.I. and then completely blasted them into lightspeed. Of the big four they are the least discussed, but they will always be my favorite. Well, them and Crossed Out, of course. Crossed Out are the dark lords of powerviolence.

Wood: The title "Fighting Music" says it all. It was about musical fighting. Treacherous examinations of humans defacing themselves or injuring their psyches. Powerviolence was hyper-driven violent signals with human freak subject matter. Powerviolence is up to the determination of those who listen to it, but those who have an intellectual interest will understand it more easily than those who don't look at lyric sheets. In "Fighting Music," the insert wasn't actually the lyrics; there were statements or descriptions concerning the tracks which tried to force you to listen to the lyrics. In Neanderthal's case, and maybe the early stages of MITB, we were about humans desecrating their very Garden of Eden through psychological torture of themselves. Powerviolence is kind of a weird moniker. I believe there was power in the documents that we recorded, and we did kind of get off on the violent hypothetical-ness of it. Power with hypothetically violent subjects.


  1. Where was this originally from?

    1. The interwebs my friend, the interwebs.

  2. *Ahe* Not "The Interwebs" from Decibel Magazine."Screwdriver in the Urethra of Hardcore" Anthony Bartkewicz. Decibel Magazine, July 2007.