Cherubs Flourish in the Afterlife at SOS Fest
"We didn’t want to be a Cherubs cover band playing Heroin Man over and over for people"
A once-familiar off-the-hook warning tone begins it. Before the brain can process why this irritating sound is bleating from someplace other than a telephone receiver, out spews a deviant spiral of noise and rhythm punctuated by man-on-fire howls. You can snap it off or turn it up, but there's no such thing as a tepid reaction to "Stag Party," the opening track of Cherubs' 1994 touchstone, Heroin Man.
Upon its release, the Austin trio's sophomore disc proved the most sonically advanced recording to emerge from a bumper crop of underground rock bands colonizing Red River. The album should've vaulted Cherubs into the skull-splitting firmament then occupied by groups including Unsane and the Jesus Lizard. Instead, the band broke up on the eve of Heroin Man's release due to a perfect storm of personal issues.
None of that's in evidence when the re-formed threesome shows up for coffee on a sunny September Sunday morning. The night before, Cherubs played only their second gig since 1994, opening the humidity-sodden final show of Mohawk's 10th anniversary weekend. A fourth return gig – and almost certainly the largest – will be at this weekend's inaugural Sound on Sound Fest.
"I'm hurting right now," admits guitarist/vocalist Kevin Whitley. "Physically hurting from one show."
No wonder. Two decades after their dissolution, Cherubs still summon the oddly timed hallucinogenic brutality of their initial incarnation. In fact, the Mohawk show and band's recent recordings suggest they may have surpassed it. Quite a trick for a band whose original run lasted only three years.
Whitley, bassist/vocalist Owen McMahon, and drummer Brent Prager first met in the late Eighties while working at Wheatsville Co-op. Whitley's primary gig at the time was manning drums in Ed Hall, which indirectly led to him being cast as "Jilted Boyfriend" in Slacker. McMahon played bass in the Joint Chiefs, and Prager drummed for Houston's Sugar Shack. McMahon and Whitley also served stints in Robert Harrison's pure pop outfit, Cotton Mather.
Whitley's frustration in Ed Hall provided a key impetus for Cherubs' 1991 genesis. While their carpet burn art-punk satisfied him musically, he found the group's jam-based songwriting process too glacial. Whitley and McMahon thus chartered Cherubs with a faster, more linear process in mind. Their first drummer for all of one practice was none other than Butthole Surfers skin man King Coffey.
"The songs had a lot of fives and sevens, and just really herky-jerky kind of stuff," recalls McMahon. "King was like, 'This is badass, but I just don't think I can do this.'"
The template fused once Prager boarded.
"We were just organically playing in different time signatures and meeting up every so often," injects Prager. "It felt nice."
Meanwhile, Ed Hall prepped their third album, Gloryhole, for Coffey's homegrown Trance Syndicate label. They couldn't help but notice Whitley's growing interest in Cherubs.
"Our practice space was three doors down from Ed Hall," remembers Whitley. "So I was literally in that practice space, breaking up with them."
A few nasal hairs got singed in the immediate aftermath of Whitley's departure, but Ed Hall maintained forward momentum by recruiting Lyman Hardy, another Sugar Shack veteran, as their new drummer. And although Coffey begged off becoming a Cherub himself, his interest in the act remained piqued. Before they could play a single gig, he'd signed them to the Trance roster.
Coffey dispatched the band to Madison, Wis., to record their debut with Doug "Mr. Colson" Olson at Smart Studios. Nirvana had recorded there in April 1990 with owner/producer Butch Vig. Smart was already a demand destination by the time Cherubs arrived the following year. They were afforded a weekend of recording during L7's three-week block.
"We drove up there on a Friday," McMahon recalls. "Started recording that night."
"I had the flu by the time we got there," adds Prager. "I had a 102-degree fever."
"We finished recording on Saturday," McMahon continues. "Vocals were recorded Saturday evening. We mixed on Sunday and left in a snowstorm Sunday night."
Released not long after Cherubs made their live debut at an anti-South by Southwest showcase in 1992 at the Cavity, Icing put down a solid foundation laced with flashes of brilliance ("Pink Party Dessert") that drew in tastemakers like legendary BBC deejay John Peel. Even so, the haste of its production left the band wanting more.
Sessions for Heroin Man began right after Cherubs returned from their second tour in 1993. Road-tested by a near-bust in Indiana (revisit "Worst Tour Stories Ever," July 8), they booked a week at Sweatbox Studio, a fledgling local operation owned by Mike Vasquez and housed in a dilapidated building at Fifth and San Jacinto. Everything on Heroin Man was captured on the first or second take.
Engineer Paul Stautinger notes the LP was recorded on then-emerging 16-bit ADAT and mixed to DAT, the band pushing the pristine binary format as far into the red as possible.
"We distorted the ADATs," confirms McMahon. "That's what gave Heroin Man a real fuckin' gnarly sound – digital distortion. It's not the most pleasant thing to most ears, but that's what made it work."
Some of the album's most distinctive elements were happy accidents. The beat on "Baby Huey" came from a monkey alarm clock. The off-the-hook tone on "Stag Party" happened when Prager unknowingly knocked the studio phone out of its cradle. As its title infers, Heroin Man emerged from a point in local music history in which hard drug use was on the upswing. One of the early casualties of this wave was Dave DeLuna, to whom the album is dedicated.
"Dave was my best friend," says Prager. "He was my partner in crime – a man of few words, an observer. He was just this really cool, mellow dude. We didn't originally write that song ['Dave of the Moon'] about him. It became about him because he died after we recorded it."
"It was definitely my first experience with a heroin overdose in town," adds McMahon. "I know there would be many more after that, but that was my first."
Against that backdrop and with the album still forthcoming, Cherubs left Austin for a tour out west in mid-1994. The vibe was not good.
"I was ramping up my drug use," allows Prager. "I was less and less fun to be around, increasingly."
"He was the drug guy, I was the booze guy," says McMahon. "The booze guy didn't like the drug guy when he got drugged, and the drug guy didn't like the booze guy when he got boozed."
Meanwhile, Whitley struggled with anxiety. A sense of impending doom discolored his mood. Sometimes before a show, he'd curl up under a table and go to sleep on the club floor.
"What I know about myself now is that I need quiet," says Whitley. "I need the shit, and then I need to get away from it. I can't go constantly. I don't process it or something. So there was no way to get away from anything."
The pressure finally came to a boil in San Diego when McMahon and Prager had a preshow altercation in front of the Casbah. Though this "brawl" looms large in band lore, no punches were thrown. Prager describes it as "just a shove and a roll on the ground."
Nevertheless, the band's days were numbered. The trio soldiered through the rest of the tour, ending in Dallas with a gig opening for one-hit alterna-wonders Letters to Cleo. By the time Heroin Man was released, Cherubs was no more.
Aside from one last conciliatory show at Emo's, the trio went their separate ways after 1994. McMahon toured with the Butthole Surfers in 1996 and later moved to Asheville, N.C. Prager spent time in New York before taking up the bass chair for the Fuckemos. When not co-founding celebrated branding and design firms like Action Figure and Guerilla Suit, Whitley played in the Pretty Please with Sixteen Deluxe's Carrie Clark.
Despite no longer being a band, Cherubs found a new audience online. Pockets of fans in Europe got in touch via social media. Oregonian sludge-metal outfit Red Fang covered "Carjack Fairy." Once Whitley, Prager, and McMahon were all back in Austin, the idea of a reunion slowly began to take shape.
The 2013 release of Everyone's Dead Before They Leave, a 20-track Cherubs tribute album with a globe-girdling roster, helped turn intent into action.
"It was pretty huge," acknowledges Whitley. "When somebody cares enough about what you do to do something like that, you realize you're having the effect you want."
Upon reaching out to Red Fang to give kudos for their cover, the band discovered that two employees of the band's label, Philadelphia-based Relapse Records, were Cherubs fans. They also learned that the pair, Bob Lugowe and Mike Lara, were starting their own Brutal Panda label. When the trio contacted Brutal Panda, the label figured it was to get Heroin Man reissued. Instead, Cherubs wanted to record a whole new album.
"We didn't want to be a Cherubs cover band playing Heroin Man over and over for people," says McMahon. "That was not why we were going to be getting back together. It wasn't going to be a reunion show tour. It was going to be based around new material that was moving forward."
After woodshedding songs for a year, the band brought ample trepidation into their sessions with producer Mike McCarthy.
"We weren't going to put it out unless we really liked it," asserts Prager. "We were scared to death to fall into that huge pit of bands that had attempted this. It's gotta be fucking great or not at all."
Fortunately, last year's 2 Ynfynyty bested the odds by several lengths (see "Texas Platters," April 3, 2015). From the tuck-and-roll gravel scars of "Sandy on the Beach" to the soot-stained groove of "Cumulo Nimbus," Cherubs evolved from where they left off rather than simply rehashing their previous work. Earlier this year, they followed up with "Fist in the Air," the closest thing to a summer pop anthem Cherubs has done.
"We just kind of dropped our pants unabashedly and were like, 'We fucking love pop music,'" muses Prager.
Now that the band is playing select live gigs again, the near-term goal is touring Europe. If they have regrets about not capitalizing on Heroin Man, you can't tell from the trio's easygoing banter. Sobered up and years wiser, they appreciate the whole endeavor more than they would've pre-millennium.
"The fact we're still here, the fact we got back together, the fact we made that record should've never happened," says McMahon. "That's what makes it most enjoyable. This is a total gift."
Cherubs perform at 6:05pm, Sun., Nov. 6, for Sound on Sound Fest in Sherwood Forest, 1883 Old Hwy. 20 in McDade.