Cult of Personality
Dissecting Insect Records' Ben Webster, Attack Formation commander
Butcher Bear should be Red River's official mascot. He looks like an outcast from Gorillaz's Plastic Beach, a six-foot floppy red bear – occasionally baby blue and sporting a bloody apron – with a permanent, sharp-toothed roar and sideways glance.
The costumed creature made a perfectly odd master of ceremonies for Red 7's Pride Weekend Extravaganza kickoff with Pansy Division and Buzzcocks cover band Orgasm Addicts the first weekend of June, showing up and leaving the gig in character. In between band sets, this character anchors the duo of Butcher Bear & Charlie.
From behind a collapsible DJ rig, he spins grimy beats that sound chopped, screwed, and reassembled, working the crowd in a manner that suggests an Adult Swim rewrite of Yo Gabba Gabba! while Charlie – former Dallas Lyric Opera singer Maricela Mayo – struts through sultry club bangers like "Sex Clock" and "Misbehaving." Beauty and the beast, performance art with a hip-hop soundtrack.
"These are good noises; don't be afraid," the Butcher warns the crowd, before closing with a warped rendition of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly With His Song."
Beneath the black mesh between the Bear's pointed teeth, the shadowy face of Ben Webster is barely visible. A beat mechanic with a mathematical mind and big band vision, Webster has been a ubiquitous presence on the local music scene for more than a decade. Just one night prior, Butcher Bear – sans costume – hosted the Hot Sh!t Summer Series at Club de Ville, a four-part showcase for Los Angeles- and Texas-based electronic artists.
More importantly, Webster's the founder of Insect Records and leader of Attack Formation, a broken social scene of local musicians with a membership that currently numbers 268. And it's still growing.
"Ben's definitely a catalyst for creativity," notes Those Peabodys guitarist Adam Hatley, a longtime fixture in Attack Formation who also records as trap-set collagist Aadm Our Hatley for Insect Records. "The boy has a knack for getting talented people together to make something happen. The feeling bounces around and around."
"It's a musical conversation with him," furthers the Big Boys' Tim Kerr, who helped produce Attack Formation's first two albums and collaborates with Webster in Total Sound Group Direct Action Committee. "The best musicians are music fans. Ben loves what he's doing, and it shows."
Society of Friends
By his own account, Ben Webster didn't have any friends growing up. He had records, lots of them.
"My mom was a professor at UT, so I would just walk across the street and hang out at Sound Exchange," the 33-year-old native reminisces a few days later, Flying Lotus' Cosmogramma humming in the background. "I would go up to the counter and say, 'Hey, uh, what should I listen to?' They thought it was hilarious that this kid was asking to look through the 45s. I would literally start from the left side and work my way across the whole store."
It's not difficult to imagine a young Webster shuffling through the $1 record room in the back of the late Drag hangout decorated by Daniel Johnston's frog mural. There's something still mildly adolescent about Webster's demeanor, the bowl haircut and excitement, as if he still needs to grow all the way into his shoes.
Fostered by the clerks and record label owners working behind the counter – most notably Craig Koon (Rise), Roger Morgan (Unclean), Mark Twistworthy (Twistworthy), and Mark Fagan (Bunkhaus), as well as Paul Streckfus' cassette-only Golden Hour – Webster absorbed an encyclopedic knowledge of underground DIY culture. He even wrote letters to 35 of his favorite labels – SST, Dischord, Touch and Go, and Lookout! to name four – soliciting suggestions for acts to check out. Black Flag's Henry Rollins responded on behalf of his 2.13.61 publishing company.
"Records are my greatest teachers and always have been," nods Webster. "There's a great sense of community to it."
As sacred cows were being sacrificed nightly to the shotgun of the Butthole Surfers' Gibby Haynes, Webster was saving up his allowance for cab fare home from Sonic Youth and Gwar at Liberty Lunch. At the Ritz's release party for the seminal 1993 compilation Love & Napalm, he witnessed firsthand the convulsive shock therapy of the Trance Syndicate era, courtesy of Ed Hall, Crust, Drain, Cherubs, and Pain Teens. The effect could be likened to substituting Saturday morning cartoons for Frank Kozik's perverse show posters.
"That was really crazy," Webster recalls with a sly smile. "I remember thinking, 'I don't know anybody here, and everyone is totally wasted.' I'm watching these bands that are very weird and twisted. I was scared, but I wasn't frightened for my life, even though maybe I should have been.
"The music was just so different. I was completely blown away."
Before long, Webster had fully immersed himself in the scene, working the door for the Fuckemos at the dodgy Blue Flamingo and honing his chops on the drums with psychotic grindcore act Society of Friends. He co-founded Tune in Tokyo, a local post-hardcore group that cut like At the Drive-In's one-armed scissor, before hooking up with Minneapolis' Sean Na Na and subsequent electro-R&B successor Har Mar Superstar. The latter act notched tours with the Strokes and a European run with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but Webster had other ideas.
"All drummers want to do something else if they play long enough," he says. "I wanted to start a band that would never break up."
We Are Alive in Tune
Attack Formation is more a community than a band, with Webster serving as its founder, leader, and spokesman.
"I put it together so that I can play with as many of my friends as possible and enjoy the process," summarizes Webster, who started the project in 1999 with only a four-track recorder. "There are no rules to it; just do something crazy and put it out there. The idea was to make it liquid, so when circumstances change you can change with them.
"If everyone quits, that's not a big problem."
The collective's revolving-door policy turned Webster's North Austin headquarters, mere blocks from where he grew up, into a sort of indie co-op. Until recently, members regularly rotated in residence, while the group's laundry list of contributors swelled to include local stalwarts such as the Sword's J.D. Cronise and Australian Cattle God Records' Bryan Nelson and national guests, including Ron Miller of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds offshoot Kid Congo Powers & the Pink Monkey Birds and Chris Wilson from Ted Leo & the Pharmacists.
The legacy of that period, a musty scent of stale sweat, permeates the carpet lining the walls of the small one-car garage that serves not only as the band's practice space but that of the Crack Pipes and a handful of others. A random assortment of effects pedals, cables, and instruments litters the floor, and comic drawings from trumpeter Bill Jeffery and auxiliary freelancer Kenneth Holland illustrate the drywall in the stairway leading into the bunker.
"We used to have to line up in rows of three to fit," laughs Webster.
Attack Formation's music has been and likely always will be a constant work in progress, an avant-garde spectacle of urban surrealism and general pop culture subversion, with songs and lineups fluctuating like the weather. The conglomerate's grab-bag appeal marks a throwback to the glorious noise that defined the previous generation, shifting from cathartic post-punk to junkyard collections of found sound. Webster describes it as "indie rock from every possible vantage point."
"It's a constantly changing behemoth of sound, texture, and players," concurs Sean Tillmann, better known as kinky crooner Har Mar Superstar, a onetime member and longtime fan of Attack Formation. "You never know what you're going to get, and that's exciting. I've seen them go from brutal noise one tour to uplifting pop jams the next. It's just a big fun family where anything goes."
There's some method to the madness, though. The group's more experimental, polyphonic sprees are reserved for offshoot A-Formatik on Tact, while a smaller portion of the musicians only participate in Attack (iN)Formation. ("This is a more specialized area consisting of no more than a single live performance per year," clarifies Hatley.)
More recently, Attack Formation has slimmed down to a fourpiece – Webster, Reagan Van Matre, Nick Moulos, and Low Line Caller's Josh Rosenblatt – issuing garage-rock nuggets under the moniker the Formations. A fourth Attack Formation LP and documentary, Every Thing We Put Down Has It's Ups, is slated for release later this year.
"I do see myself at the center of it all," Webster asserts. "They depend on me to be the boss. It doesn't have to be my way, but people do need someone that's going to be able to make decisions. It's crazy when you get that many people together. You have to be really diplomatic and really assertive. I want to give to the people that are putting in the work the most power in a sense."
The New State of Sound
Webster never fully admits to being the man inside the Butcher Bear costume, insisting that the character was created and is maintained by a group of people. Yet, clues to the origins of his alter ego are scattered throughout his bedroom studio. Fliers from his 2007 retread of John & Yoko's Vietnam-era "War Is Over" campaign are piled up beneath his loft, a set-up necessitated by the countless stacks of LPs.
More telling is the Sun Ra woodcut and action figures of Madvillain and Quasimoto perched above his studio console. That's fitting, given that Butcher Bear's saturated beats fuse the subaquatic and nimble cadences of West Coast hip-hop production with forays into free jazz, all filtered through Webster's uniquely Austin perspective.
"A lot of times I'll do quick passes on some drums outside and then go back and sort of sample myself," explains Webster, who estimates that he crafted more than 700 instrumentals last year alone. "I take bits and pieces and throw them into another machine and start pushing other buttons, taking it apart and putting it back together with some synth parts. It becomes a kind of amalgam.
"That's where you get the real original stuff, when you do things out of order."
Of course, Webster's no stranger to unconventional methodology. He started Insect Records last year as a communal hive for his associated projects. His niche label recently released an incredible silk-screened and hand-numbered compilation that was made available only as a bonus gift for spending $30 or more at Domy Books, Backspin Records, or End of an Ear.
The 12-song sampler collects efforts from Attack Formation local offshoots – the audio alchemy of Reaganometry, Strong Silent Type's acoustic beat poetry, and an improbable single from Butcher Bear & Charlie – plus selections from previous releases, like the blues explosion of Cleveland's This Moment in Black History and Society of Friends' "DEBO," from its recently released anthology. The only thing missing is one of the laptop summer jams from Freshmillions' new eponymous record.
Aside from a few notable local efforts in the pipeline and the debut full-length from B-movie sound-trackers Fingaar Bangaar (see sidebar "Incubation Chamber"), Insect Records is stretching its web across other mediums as well, with limited-edition art books by Eric Berger and Mike Combs due next year. Webster's also in the "storybook phase" for a proposed 3-D Imax film based on the electronic symphonies of Austin's Zorch.
"I want to keep the quality at 150 percent and let that be the driving force behind the label," Webster relates. "When I agree to something the limitations aren't monetary even if I can't afford it. People that go crate-digging, you find something for $2 and sit there and look at it, and wonder why did someone make this? It's so elaborate and crazy.
"I kind of like that."