Lost at Scene

After spearheading the post-punk revival, GoGoGo Airheart is still on its own island.

There wasn't a cloud in the sky as the twin-engine Lockheed Electra took off from Lae, New Guinea. It was July 2, 1937, and although international relations were tense, World War II was still many months away. The only enemy the little plane had was the Pacific itself, vast and unforgiving. The trek started unremarkably, but within hours, dark storm clouds had begun to congeal above the aircraft. Rain drenched it as it fought for altitude and foundered off course. And then the Electra vanished.

There are many theories floating around about what happened to the plane's navigator, Fred Noonan, and its heroic pilot, Amelia Earhart. Some say their craft simply crashed into the ocean and sank, leaving no survivors. Others contend that the two adventurers were washed up on the tiny island of Nikumaroro and lived there until their deaths from exposure and hunger. One of the wildest explanations, though, insists that Earhart was a spy for Franklin Roosevelt, and that her daring flight around the world was just a cover for a reconnaissance mission over the Japanese-held Marshall Islands. After spending WWII imprisoned in Japan, she returned to America and assumed the identity of Irene Bolam, a housewife in New Jersey, where she kept her secret until her death in 1982.

Ashish Vyas, bassist of the California group GoGoGo Airheart, is no stranger to either history or conspiracy. A phone call to his San Diego home -- ostensibly to talk about his band -- quickly morphs into a meandering rant on such topics as John Kerry's past as a member of the secret society Skull & Bones and the American government's roots in the Bavarian Illuminati. "I got a degree in biology when I was in college, but that was more for my dad," he says. "I always wanted to study history. I always loved that."

Winging it: Ashish Vyas (from left),  Andy Robillard and 
Michael Vermillion are GoGoGo Airheart.
Winging it: Ashish Vyas (from left), Andy Robillard and Michael Vermillion are GoGoGo Airheart.
Winging it: Ashish Vyas (from left),  Andy Robillard and Michael Vermillion are GoGoGo Airheart.
Winging it: Ashish Vyas (from left), Andy Robillard and Michael Vermillion are GoGoGo Airheart.

Of course, the talk eventually turns to music, but even then, Vyas approaches the subject with the zeal of an archaeologist. He tells how, when GoGoGo Airheart played a show with Fugazi in England a few years ago, he had an opportunity to sit down with the venerable group's singer/guitarist Ian Mackaye and shoot the shit. Vyas immediately started picking his brain about HR, leader of the legendary Bad Brains, and what he was really like back in the day. From there, Vyas begins analyzing the various epochs of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band before settling into a dialogue on the aesthetic viability of the double LP in the 1970s. At least once or twice per sentence, he punctuates his speech with a jumbled, enthusiastic "YouknowwhatImean?"

"Classic rock is my first love," he admits proudly. "I'm a geek that way."

The bassist's passion for music history should come as no surprise to those who listen to his band. Since its formation in 1996, GoGoGo Airheart has ruthlessly pillaged the corpse of popular culture, stripping bones long thought bare, nourishing itself on the more esoteric appendages of rock and roll, kraut rock, Afro-beat, dub, pop, funk and post-punk.

That last genre, however, is the one with which Airheart is most closely aligned. A lot of hyperbole has been circulated about how post-punk took the vicious ethos of punk rock and intellectualized it, but listen to most of the young groups of that era and you'll realize that they were actually trying to play punk rock...and failing. They didn't even have the modicum of talent and toughness it took to bang out a Ramones song, and the result was a twisted, mutated spasm of rhythm and noise. And therein lies its genius: Post-punk was institutionalized amateurism, gloriously intimate, sensitive and yet abrasive, made by kids who didn't even know the rules they were obliterating.

Of course, the heavy hitters of the post-punk movement clearly knew what they were doing -- This Heat and Public Image Ltd., for instance, or Pere Ubu and Talking Heads -- but their influence only ushered more clangor and confusion onto the scene. That the plastic, new-wave pop of the 1980s sprouted from this uncultivated soil is mind-boggling. Just as ironic, though, is the fact that some of the hottest, most hyped bands of today, from Hot Hot Heat to the Rapture, are offering no more than a slick, sexed-up simulacrum of that coarse and disjointed post-punk sound.

"So many of my friends' bands right now are on major labels and getting fat deals," says Vyas. "It seems like, right now, popular music has kind of changed a little bit. There are a lot of people who are getting successful and also writing good music. I think the stuff that the Rapture is doing and the stuff that we're doing -- it's coming from the same scene. We're all on the same team."

More than just teammates, the members of the Rapture -- by far the most successful act of the current post-punk revival -- are old friends of Vyas and crew. Although synonymous with its new home base of Brooklyn, the Rapture is originally from San Diego and was clearly inspired by its neighbors GoGoGo Airheart. "The funny thing is, a lot of those bands being touted as being from Brooklyn, they all have people from California in them," Vyas notes. "The Rapture, !!!, the Young People, Liars. Granted, the catalyst might be Brooklyn itself, but much of the roots of that stuff is here."

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