Dark, Heavy, Grindy Music
Austin's Industrial Revolution
Never in a million years would I have thought that Trent Reznor, Alain Jourgensen, and bands like Filter would be radio staples, racking up gold records like so many rotten carcasses at the back end of a Texas Feedlot. But then, 10 years ago, the very idea of bands like Green Day and Rancid wearing out the heavy rotation groove on MTV was incomprehensible, as well. I'd have sooner subscribed to the notion of Geraldine Ferraro in the White House. Times change.
While Lint Armstrong and the Nails entourage (now featuring Austin's Danny Lohner, late of Skrew and others) fight for alterna-rock supremacy, Austin, seemingly forever a bastion of punk rock genius, has birthed a new, powerful, and thoroughly unpretentious aggro-industrial scene while no one was looking. From longtime hooligans the Skatenigs and Skrew to bands that are just now starting to receive the attention that has long been denied them, Auschwitz 46, Necrofix, Mentallo & the Fixer, Burn, and others have taken the local industrial scene to new levels of grinding, churning punch. Ears are bleeding and technology is being subverted in ways Orwell never would have dreamed, but then, birth is rarely anything but messy.
Whether or not early to mid-Eighties Austin groups like Meatjoy and the then-nascent Buttholes parlayed the Teutonic zeitgeist of Blixa Bargeld's Einsturzende Neubauten and the like into a homegrown garage-industrial movement even back then is, by now, a moot point. Technology is available to every creep with the cashflow, and sample-driven, 808 drum machine pounders are popping up on every corner these days, but Austin's industrial bands have a shared mindset that sets them apart from the mainstream of what is rapidly turning into the music of the next millennium. They're louder, more technically proficient, and, let's get this out of the way, they're really, really nice guys. Especially Auschwitz 46's Jason Janssen, a guy who uses the term "nice" like a comma.
Not long after Auschwitz arrived on the scene from North Texas Musician Hell - or Denton, if you're in with Rand McNally - their shows at Ohms' Tuesday night industrial/bondage shows set them apart. Filling the stage with the battered husks of thrift-store television sets and bathed in the cathode glow, their music mixed sample-heavy, percussive eardeath overlayed by the razors-for-breakfast screechings of vocalist Corey Wilson, all backed by dueling, rack-mounted keyboards and the sternum-shattering thud of drummer Sean Mahoney.
While they were hardly the first of Austin's new wave of industrial bands, they were certainly a group that was hard to ignore. Dividing their time between shows at Ohms, the Back Room (now the home of "Bloodfest," a kind of mini-Lollapalooza for those into latex and candlewax), and, briefly, Club Void, they've built a steady reputation as the premier industrial band to catch. "As far as the industrial scene in Austin, there isn't one," says Janssen. "Well, okay, there is, but it's not, ah, supported very well. People will go to the first few shows and then slack off. We've been lucky. I don't know why we're still drawing people. Maybe it's because we're so nice? I really don't know."
Are they happy with the industrial label?
"Industrial for me, really, was bands like Skinny Puppy back when it was mostly keyboards. Kraftwerk. I love stuff like that, structured and really square on the fours and you could dance to it. These days, the contemporary thing is basically metal bands that use a bunch of technology: Nine Inch Nails, Filter, White Zombie. We're trying to get away from all that and strip it down to the bare minimum. We're trying to find something that doesn't sound like either."
"When we first started out," adds vox Wilson, "people would watch us for about 15 minutes, freak out, and then leave. They're really sticking around longer these days. People want to be able to watch you, and be interested in what you're doing through a 45-minute set. That's the trick. Keeping them excited."
Austin, however, doesn't seem to be the city that people think of when they think industrial. Apart from sporadic scene reports in the zine Industrial Nation (alongside gobs of like-minded articles from the emerging Pacific Northwest scene), the industrial groove has gone largely unnoticed within its own spawning grounds.
"This town kills musicians," says Janssen. "I mean, name the last band that got signed out of here and really made it. Everyone that gets signed, dies. Seriously. My new motto is `Austin: Where Bands Come to Die.' Somebody ought to change those bumper stickers around town to `Austin: Dead Music Capital of the World.' Look at Ian Moore. Ouch. The Skatenigs, Skrew... those guys still have day jobs. They were signed, received national distribution, and still... it's crap."
It's true, though, that Austin seems to be blinded to what's going on in its midst. Mentallo & the Fixer, a local industrial band that just released their seventh CD - on the German Zoth Omog label - is huge in the Teutons (like David Hasselhoff) but practically ignored here. That may have something to do with the fact that they've never played live before, but still, it begs the question, can five million Germans be wrong? Well....
Necrofix, a keyboard/sample-oriented attack that take the flavor of early Skinny Puppy and then punch it one step further, is headed by the quiet, unassuming, and dangerously blonde Bildo. They've encountered similar difficulties within the local scene. "Austin has a very, very good industrial scene going on here, but I think people just don't realize it," says Bildo. "You've got a lot of top acts sitting here - Auschwitz, Burn, Skrew, and Ministry (although they don't play).
"We've got a couple of tracks out on compilations, and we get tons of letters from Germany, France, all over Europe and the U.S.... except from Austin. No one's paying attention to what's going on in their own backyard. It's odd, because a lot of the acts here are very big elsewhere. Just not here. For instance, I got a letter the other day from Germany saying they have this big thing where they go into these caves with a sound system and have like 600 people listening to our music. It's really weird for me to think of that."
On the other side of the industrial spectrum, away from the ADATs and sample-rich horrorshow of Necrofix, is Burn. Member Clay Campbell, tattooed love god that he is, says "The way I look at it, industrial covers everything from Nine Inch Nails to Nailbomb, and that's pretty much a huge expanse of music right there. You can go through dance all the way around to the heavy stuff and... essentially anything that has programmed drums these days is called industrial. You can tag it with that label. Are we industrial? Sure, but for the most part, the people in the band don't even listen to that type of music. We just like to use all the elements available to us.
"You have so much control," continues Campbell. "You can sit in a room, sample some guitar parts, and all of a sudden you've got a complete skeleton to build an entire well-orchestrated song on. You no longer have to play with five guys in a room, wondering if they're fucking up and you just can't hear them. This way, you put it in, press play, there it is. You're not bound by what a guitar or bass sounds like, in fact, that's probably the hardest part about writing: choosing the sound. I mean, you sit there for hours, running through [memory] banks, looking for the perfect... static."
One other aspect (glaring, sweaty, sweet) of the industrial scene here is its commingling with the local bondage/fetish crowd. An industrial show in Austin, be it Tuesday night at Ohms or the snowballing hell that is "Bloodfest," is rife with scantily clad dominatrix and latex and rubber-garbed nightcrawlers. One reason for this comes from the bondage/destruction performance art of Flesh Assembly, an eight-plus-member group headed by founder Lord Lascivious and Mistress Raven. "I used to call it just a bondage show," says Lascivious, "but now I call it Destruction Art. We've gotten into a lot of body modification, a lot of really weird, almost circus sideshow-type things, but with a nice Inquisition touch. Describing it is hard. It's everything you don't want in life, and everything you do, mixed into one."
Oh, yes. Flesh Assembly sometimes seems like the glue that holds Austin's industrial scene together, with their weekly shows at Ohms and their current and future gigs at Bloodfest. A typical set piece features various members of the group having their most private fleshy bits pierced with giant needles, while molten crimson beeswax drips across their brows and leather and latex lovesexys sweating and gyrating to the side. Women are hoisted aloft, bound from all sides by rope and chain while a stunned and clearly aroused audience leers on. It's a visual counterpart to the more musical aspects of the scene and just as integral.
"Mistress Raven is in charge of all the erotic segments of the show, and I'm in charge of all the really weird stuff," says Lord Lascivious. "We enjoy making people cringe, and Raven's side enjoys making people hot, bothered, wet, and hard. We currently have eight tattooed members of Flesh Assembly, the tattoo meaning that you're in for life. Sort of like a Boy Scout badge, but more like a, oh, a Bloodscout."
Why the, ah, tie-in to the industrial scene?
"Because industrial music is dark, heavy, grindy, and mean, and bondage and S/M are dark, heavy, grindy, and mean, but it also has a touch of decadence. The music has heavy animalistic beats, and, in the right circumstances, tends to arouse you, and when the two become intertwined, it becomes not just a statement of what you like to wear and who you like to listen to, but also what you like to do in private and who you like to do it with. Everyone should try it at least once. At least once."
If 1990 was The Year That Punk Broke, what's the timeline like for industrial? It's already here, coiling around Austin like a king snake in leather and smiling with those hidden ivory fangs. But it's nice, according to Auschwitz's Janssen: "A lot of people in this town take things way too fucking seriously, because anybody can do what we're doing. Anybody. It's nothing. If you can go out and have fun and make some really cool noise, that's it. That's what it's all about."n [Trent Reznor and NIN play Southpark Meadows with David Bowie, Reeves Gabriel, and Prick, Saturday, Oct. 14.]