Monique Ortiz and Mike Howard of Alien Knife Fight met while both were working, in two separate buildings, for Grav Labs in Austin, but they didn't really know one another. One day in 2010, they ran into each other while practicing with their then-projects: a short-lived band of Ortiz's and Howard's stoner-rock band Bay of Pigs. Something clicked, and the two started hanging out, first playing music, then dating. Then they formed Alien Knife Fight, a band with Ortiz on lead vocals and bass and Howard on drums and backing vocals.
“In the ’90s, it seemed every guitarist had some kind of drama going on and they couldn't commit, so I said the hell with guitarists,” says Ortiz. “Bourbon Princess [a former band of Ortiz's in Boston] started off as a duo in 1996. Just bass and drums. When I moved down to Austin, the personnel problem came up. Mike and I had a couple of different guys playing sax and a guy that played keyboards. [We] couldn't pay them, and they moved on because they couldn't commit, because they were in twelve different bands. You can't make money if you're only playing in one band unless you have a record deal or are in a cover band.”
Both musicians came to Austin from far away nearly twenty years apart. Howard grew up in Boise and moved with his progressive metal band, Way, Shape and Form — “a combination of Metallica and Mr. Bungle — to Texas in 1991, where he landed in Austin, during its bohemian renaissance captured in Richard Linklater's film Slacker, released the same year.
Ortiz grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which had a music scene that comprised classic rock and Top 40 cover bands. Ortiz, however, found herself forming a post-punk band called Out the Sun with high school and college friends.
In May 1996, Ortiz went to see the alternative-rock band Morphine in Philadelphia. “It was literally a life-changing event,” she says. “I had really gotten it into my head that I could lead a band or write music on a bass guitar. I had this thought that rock music didn't necessarily need guitars. I thought I could form a band with different instrumentation. When I saw Morphine, I thought, 'These guys are doing what I want to do.' I was totally inspired by them, and I walked right back stage and introduced myself to them, and they were really cool to me, and they encouraged me to visit Boston.”
Ortiz ended up moving to Boston, intending to collaborate with every member of Morphine's musical circle, which she did.
Following the untimely death of Morphine's iconic frontman and bass player Mark Sandman in 1999, Ortiz formed a band with Morphine's inventive saxophonist Dana Colley, called A.K.A.C.O.D. (Also Known As Colley, Ortize and Dersch). When that band's album Happiness came out in 2007, it was amid a mounting national financial crisis and what some might consider the collapse of any meaningful music industry. The album was mostly met with indifference by critics and sparse audiences in the United States. Although the band got a second life in 2013 for a European tour, that was after it had lost its steam and after Ortiz wanted to reset her life, sick of fourteen years of Boston's brutal winters and feeling creatively stalled out. That triggered her move to Austin, a city where she had played many times in the past and where she had friends.
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With a name inspired by a mutual love of science fiction and B-movies and little label support, Ortiz and Howard have so far only released a couple of EPs and a single. Although on tour with blues-rock great Scott H. Biram, and Jesse Dayton, Alien Knife Fight isn't really a blues-based rock band. The format is more rooted in rhythm and atmosphere. Ortiz's presence imbues her act with the punk grittiness born of her years in Boston. And despite their being music veterans of more than two decades, Ortiz and Howard project a fresh, confident and smoldering energy in their performances that really only comes with age.
“Talking about the age thing, when I went to see Morphine, those were guys in their late thirties or early forties, and the people in the audience were my age, in their early twenties at the time. It's harder to build a following when you're our age. Our peers don't come to shows, because they have kids. Before the Internet, it seemed like once you were in your thirties, you were out of the game as far as playing rock and roll and indie rock. But that's no longer true. I go see people I've liked for the last twenty years, and they're playing for entirely new audiences. So I'm hoping people give us a chance and not write us off because we're old and withered.”
Alien Knife Fight plays with Scott H. Biram and Jesse Dayton, Saturday, March 25, at 8 p.m. at 3 Kings Tavern. For more information, call 303-777-7352. Tickets are $10.