Band of Brothers
There's a man lying near death at your feet. His body has been punctured by seven slugs of enemy fire, and your compatriots -- the ones who don't bolt out of fright -- try frantically to plug the gushing leak in his neck. But it's all in vain, and you witness the last of his life pumping out of him and seeping into the ground. Later, as you sit back and try to catch a little R and R, you hear a horrendous crash outside your quarters. A one-ton projectile of mangled steel just came hurtling out of the air and tore through your vehicle. One of your guys was inside, and he barely makes it; covered in mud and broken glass, he stumbles out of the debris and starts to go into shock. The realization hits you that life is a tenuous, ephemeral affair no more loving or lasting than a puff of smoke from the barrel of an M-16. Mortality is strangling you by the balls, and you whimper at the stench of death's hot breath.
Running ops against guerrilla insurgents in the dunes outside Fallujah? Chasing down CIA-trained terrorists in the treacherous hills of Afghanistan? Nope. You're just hanging out with the Bronx.
"We had just finished drinking at this bar in L.A. where we always go, and some guy got shot seven times right in front of us," says Joby Ford, guitarist for Los Angeles punk-rock Wehrmacht the Bronx. "They just blasted this dude, and then they turned around to shoot us. Half of us split, the other half of us froze. It's pretty gnarly, seeing someone with holes in his neck and his blood just flowing. But then this homeless guy from the neighborhood, Louis, came out of nowhere and got in the way. He pretty much saved our lives.
"I can't really tell you the name of the place where it happened," Ford continues, dropping his voice a little. "It's kind of a gang thing. I know that sounds weird, but out here that shit gets back around. I had a mustache then, but I shaved it and dyed my hair. Just to play it safe, you know?"
Playing it safe, though, is about the last objective in the Bronx's battle plan. The group is as reckless as Evel Knievel gone kamikaze; over the last two years, it has withstood a barrage of shots, assaults, collisions and catastrophes that have honed its bludgeoning edge to a machete-like sharpness. Ford and his crew's self-titled 2003 debut -- a joint release between their own White Drugs imprint and the major label Island Records -- is a mess of spastic, spittle-dripping conniptions. Its eleven songs are slices of cracked bone and electrocuted flesh that rival the direst dirges ever hacked up by Black Flag, New Bomb Turks and the Murder City Devils. As pulverizing rhythms and acidic riffs intertwine like razor wire, a wounded howl tears desperately out of some deep pit of the band's soul. The album is the sound of an animal gnawing off its own leg to get out of a trap -- a trap of numbness, self-abuse and dead-end despair.
Some bands have stories. The Bronx has bona fide war tales; it formed two years ago after its individual members -- Ford, singer Matt Caughthran, bassist James Tweedy and drummer Jorma Vik -- had spent nearly a decade in L.A. playing in various acts that were going nowhere. Ford was a transplant from Colorado; his family moved from Denver to Grand Junction when he was eight, and he remained there until moving to California for college. "Grand Junction sucks," he notes. "There's really not much of anything going on, unless you like hunting." He spent his adolescence pursuing the typical pastimes of a small-town kid: Smoking pot behind the school gym, seeing crappy local rock shows in churches, picking up trash around construction sites for extra beer money and ordering skate-rock compilations from the back of Thrasher Magazine.
Moving to the megalopolis of L.A., though, was like being deployed to a combat zone. "It was just overwhelming," Ford remembers. "The place is so huge. James and I played in some bands together, clearing out every single club. But after we started the Bronx, there was this period when all of our lives were changing. We decided to stop working and focus on the band full time. I'm still getting used to that, just living day to day and finding alternate ways of making money and surviving. But it was a pretty dark time, just one thing after another. Every day, some new disaster happened."
When asked what kinds of disasters he means, Ford pauses for a second. "Um...overdoses," he confesses reluctantly. "I don't really want to go into detail, but there was that. And friends dying. It was just a really gnarly time."
The tide of battle turned when the Bronx incited a bidding war after playing just two shows in L.A., but the reality of their sudden success is much less glamorous than it might seem. The group turned down a gigantic advance from Island, taking only $150,000 -- chump change by major-label standards, but just enough for the members to pay off their debts, get a decent van and buy some guitars that weren't falling apart. They were even so thrifty as to record their album live, mostly on the first or second take, at a friend of a friend's home studio. That friend, however, happened to be Gilby Clarke of Guns N' Roses.
"Our manager used to play with Gilby in a band called Candy," says Ford. "So we talked to Gilby, and he said, 'Yeah, your demo was great. I hate new bands, especially bands like you guys, but I think you're pretty good.' It turned out that his studio was so conducive to what we wanted to do. We set up in a room, plugged in, looked at each other and went, 'One, two, three, go!'
"I've always been really turned off by all these monster-sounding records," he adds, "these sonically engineered masterpieces that have become the norm. We were like, 'Fuck all that. Let's make something that sounds real.' There are mistakes all over our record, but sometimes there's more to music than perfection."
Ford was stoked on working with Gilby Clarke, however, for reasons beyond a common recording philosophy. "I loved Guns N' Roses when I was a kid," he readily admits. "Back then I thought, 'All these other bands suck. These guys are the real deal.' I thought they were crazy and hard and drug addicts and all the things you think rock and roll is when you're a kid."
It makes sense that Ford is a GNR fan, considering his own band's appetite for destruction. He and his troops have been touring the world for almost a year and a half straight now, sharing stages with higher-ups like the Distillers, the Supersuckers and Rocket From the Crypt. The whole time, havoc has dogged their asses as inexorably as a heat-seeking missile. They've flipped vans, sprained arms, broken faces, blown kneecaps, watched parents pass away, drowned livers in Jack Daniel's and paid random women to kick annoying fans in the groin.
"That kind of shit happens to us all the time," explains Ford. "I'm not sure why. Satan, God. I don't know. It just kind of follows us wherever we go. There's something about our band that makes people go nuts. I've seen girls get punched in the face, clubs get ripped apart. People get hurt."
But of all the carnage and casualties that stain the Bronx like spattered blood, one incident -- for sheer, violent absurdity -- tops them all.
"We were in Detroit, and we were staying at a buddy's place," Ford recalls. "Our van was parked outside, and James was the only one in there. This drunk driver in a Mercedes was doing like a hundred down the highway, and he lost control, went over the median, through a light pole, through two trees and then off a ten-foot embankment. James heard this crash and saw two headlights coming at him, then the car landed right in the middle of our van. We felt a huge vibration in the house, but we thought it was just a semi going by until James came in all covered in dirt and glass. The van was totaled; there was just shit everywhere. So Matt walked down to 7-Eleven to get some garbage bags, and this guy with a black eye hops out from the bushes and says, 'Hey, man, I just got mugged. Could give me a ride?' And Matt was like, 'Hey, did you just crash into our van?' The guy took off running, but then cops showed up and caught him."
Instead of a war-crimes tribunal or a torture session in a POW prison, the Bronx is retaliating against its enemy combatant in a slightly more civilized way. "We're in the middle of suing him," says Ford. "We're taking that motherfucker for all he's got. He's, like, 21, just some rich kid. We plundered his car after the accident, though. We took all his CDs and expensive cologne and dry cleaning. Fuck that guy.
"Mercedes must be the best-designed cars ever," he adds with a slightly demented chuckle. "I mean, the guy was able to live through that huge crash and then just climb out and run away."
But it's always the total idiots that somehow survive crazy, violent shit like that -- not to mention the drunks, the desperate, the high, the hopeless and the insane.
And, of course, the Bronx.
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