Feel the Noise
The racket is nauseating. Vibrations slither up your tailbone and into your skeleton, rattling ribs and clacking skull against jaw. The heat bakes your stomach into a queasy bile casserole. To top it all off, your ass is about to become unhinged from bucking violently against a bare metal floor upholstered with a threadbare blanket.
You're in the back of Friends Forever's battered, rock-scarred van. When Adolf Hitler first envisioned his People's Car in 1932, he surely had no idea that a Volkswagen would ever be conscripted into such inglorious service.
"The couple of times I ever asked people for contacts for booking shows, they would never give them to us, 'cause we sucked," says Josh Taylor, bassist for the Denver noise-rock trio. "We were just really shy and didn't know anybody. So we were like, fuck it -- we'll just get a generator and play wherever we want."
Taylor, drummer Nate Hayden and keyboardist Jason Isaacs don't really perform in regular rock venues. Instead, Friends Forever plays in its van. With the side door ajar and the generator humming like a chain saw in a horror flick, the three members of the band clobber the air around them with a hailstorm of electronic rhythm, unfiltered noise, firecrackers, smoke and screams. The van seethes and spasms as if trying to withstand re-entry into earth's atmosphere.
This afternoon, though, the vehicle is taking a scenic spin around west Denver. Taylor, Hayden and Issacs, in various states of unshavenness, display a preference for dirty sneakers, brown Dickies and Broncos T-shirts. They're not big interview people; they answer questions haltingly, a bit warily, often asking each other to back them up or take over. And as it spits and rumbles along Federal Boulevard, the blue VW seems to be responding with indecipherable answers of its own.
"What were we trying to accomplish? Just making tons of chaos," says Hayden when asked about the Secret Girls, the predecessor to Friends Forever that he and Taylor formed in high school in Littleton in the early '90s. Named after a song on Sonic Youth's Evol, the group -- then much more clean-shaven, even cute -- carved a joyous cacophony out of drums, guitars, smoke bombs, horns and hormones.
"It probably had a lot of sexual overtones," says Taylor. "At that point, it was way easier for me to tap into some weird, subconscious level of myself while I was playing noise. Just pure freedom, pure enjoyment."
"Josh and I got to be friends because we both really liked Sonic Youth," Hayden explains. "I personally liked the noisy parts of their songs. We thought, we should make a band that's just all the noisy parts. We knew that we couldn't play our instruments; we didn't have the discipline to want to try. So we just made noise. We loved noise."
Although short-lived and generally ignored, the Secret Girls were befriended by two rising Denver indie-rock bands of the time: the Apples (not yet surnamed "in Stereo") and the lamentably late Felt Pilotes. "I think John P [Porcellino, leader of the Felt Pilotes] helped inspire us to keep going when he put out that Profiles in Courage thing," says Hayden. (Profiles in Courage is a sloppy yet heartwarming compilation of high-school punk bands that Porcellino and his friends recorded on a boombox in the Chicago suburbs during the mid-'80s.) "We thought, man, they were doing it in high school, so we should do it, too. They chose punk; we'll choose noise."
"I saw the Secret Girls at this place called Locals Only a long time ago," recalls Isaacs. "I think me and my friend were the only ones in the audience. They were screaming or something and playing this horrible sax. I think they were playing toy instruments."
Taylor laughs. "We thought we were on to something new."
The Secret Girls formed a record label called N.G.W.T.T. ("Nothing Gets Worse Than This") and started releasing the band's music as well as related projects. "We'd put out solo albums with runs of like five or six copies," says Taylor. Even when the members left to attend college out of state in 1994, they continued to keep in touch and release material -- usually on cassette -- on N.G.W.T.T. In 1996, Taylor had dropped out of school and was visiting Hayden in Los Angeles, where the latter was unsuccessfully trying to find work as a special-effects technician. It was there that the initial two-man lineup of Friends Forever was conceived.
"We were so sick of L.A. and Hollywood," says Taylor. "We decided to give up living in an apartment and just hit the road. I'd say we formed Friends Forever the day we left."
When asked to pinpoint the exact genesis of the whole playing-in-the-van idea, Taylor and Hayden are a bit vague. "I think it was all because of the shyness, really," says Hayden.
"Yeah. We thought we sucked so bad."
The group's modus operandi was -- and still is -- to pull up unannounced outside a club where a show was happening and wait until one of the bands stopped. Then the band would slide open the van door, fire up the generator, put on masks and rock the sidewalk until bewildered show-goers would trickle outside to see what all the commotion was. "We played so many shows where we didn't even tell people that we were outside," says Taylor. "We'd just kind of quietly jam out in the parking lot."
So why masks? Novelty? Mystique?
"Again, that was just shyness at the time," answers Hayden. "We quit wearing them as we kind of got more confident. There were also a gazillion masked bands out there. I remember seeing Slipknot and thinking, I'm never wearing masks again."
After years of touring and putting out the occasional tape or seven-inch, Friends Forever absorbed Isaacs into its ranks in 2001. "I was doing this wacky band called Bio-Bitch at the time, and Josh was pretty much the only person who showed any interest at all," says Isaacs. His first brush with rock infamy was at age sixteen, when his band Black Cabbage opened for Little Fyodor and the Warlock Pinchers. "I was completely uncomfortable being up there," he says. "It was the worst shit. Everybody walked out while we were playing. It was like Weird Al Yankovic kind of stuff, except worse."
"When I first saw Friends Forever, I thought they were just making it up," he adds. "I didn't realize those were actual songs."
With Isaacs in the band, its music has become "a lot more musical," admits Taylor. "There's more structure now, more melody.
Does that mean the trio has started writing pop songs?
"Crap songs," Hayden corrects.
Besides the usual spontaneous touring, the band has gone on jaunts with two of its favorite bands: grunge godfathers the Melvins and Japanese noise kamikazes the Boredoms. Both groups asked Friends Forever to accompany them on the road after seeing them play outside their shows in Colorado. "The Melvins were like, 'Come along with us! Follow us to Omaha! Here's twenty dollars,'" Taylor remembers. "We actually did two shows with them. They were super cool. And then we played about five shows with the Boredoms on the West Coast. They didn't speak English too well, but they would watch us and film it and take pictures. They were nice. They gave us stickers."
During the course of these epic journeys, though, there was a casualty: the group's first van. After two engine transplants and an overworked odometer, the venerable orange VW finally had to be retired. Hmmm...first orange, now blue. This color scheme might help explain the fixation with the Denver Broncos that permeates the new Friends Forever CD, Killball, released on the eminent Rhode Island noise label Load Records. The disc's back cover is a cheesy thrift-store painting of five Broncos rather unheroically tackling a single opponent against a backdrop of the snowy Rocky Mountains. Song titles include "Linebacker Blitz," "3Peat," "Two Minute Warning" and, naturally, "Elway."
"Basically it's kind of a spiritual calling," says Taylor of his love for the Broncos. "They're the hometown team. We've made a couple of life decisions according to the outcome of Broncos games. We put our lives on the line for the Broncos."
The music on Killball is Friends Forever's most accomplished and listenable to date. Listenable -- fuck, it's even catchy. Produced by the group's longtime friend and collaborator Mike Buckley - formerly of local legend Vivid Imagination - the album peels out with turbo bass riffs, droid-like synthesizers and the burning stench of sheer noise. There are even oblique references to classic rock: The track "Halftime Band" sounds like Gary Glitter's stadium anthem "Rock and Roll Part 2" skinned alive with a carrot peeler, and "Arise" is Link Wray's "Rumble" bubbling in a vat of half-set Jell-O.
"I think a lot of people do noise stuff because they're quiet people," says Hayden.
"It definitely gives a voice to really shy people," Taylor concurs. "They don't know how to express themselves, and they're probably crazy inside."
"I wouldn't say crazy," counters Hayden. "I'd say pent-up."
"Not crazy as in moody crazy," says Taylor, "but crazy as in like scribbled crayon drawings." Perhaps coincidentally, Taylor's own scribbled crayon drawings adorn the inside of Killball; his distinctive cartoons of monsters and bug-eyed mutants also grace most of the band's fliers and records.
Friends Forever's other new release besides Killball is an eponymous feature-length documentary DVD. Directed by Ben Wolfinsohn, who followed the band around on tour for eight months in 2000, the movie has been put into semi-regular rotation on the Independent Film Channel. Though pretty much disowned by the group, Taylor used the documentary as a way to show his family exactly what it is that he does: "I made my parents watch it, and I think it finally put into perspective for them what my life was about. I think they finally understood all my mumblings."
"It's kind of a love/hate thing," says Hayden. "The movie tried to dive into these realms of our lives that were just totally..."
With a name like Friends Forever, the group has a lot to live up to. Just exactly how literal is the "Forever"? How long can these guys keep this up?
"It's not like any of us have careers or anything, or anything that would even pan out into a career," says Isaacs. "We all have the worst jobs. Well, maybe not the worst jobs, but jobs that we all hate. I know I hate mine."
And what is this sweatshop occupation?
"I work for my dad."
"I would stop doing this band if I thought I was making crap," says Hayden. "I mean, I think I'm making crap now, but if I was truly making even crappier crap, I'd stop. If it goes down one more level of crappiness, it's over."
Taylor agrees. "I think we'd probably stop once we became a parody of ourselves. A parody that wasn't intentional."
But now, with the VW bruising our butts and purring like a bulldozer underneath us, Friends Forever seems eternal, unstoppable. The van starts to feel less like a mere means of conveyance and more like an escape pod. A planetoid. An ark.
"It seems kind of like home," says Taylor, pulling the battered, clattering bus into the parking lot of Dairy Queen for some shakes. "It's definitely part of the band."
"I got a little too mystical about the last van, actually. It took me about a year to even want to play in this one, 'cause I felt like I was betraying the old one. So I kind of quit being so mystical about it," says Hayden philosophically. "I was like, what am I doing? This is just a fucking van."
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