The abrasive San Diego-based noise quartet the Locust receives fan mail on a fairly regular basis. In fact, the group's press release uses the following anonymous love letter as its lead paragraph: "Go tweak yourself to death, you rich, big-headed rock stars. You are nothing but a bunch of image-concerned ass-wipes. All of your side-projects suck. And I hope you guys realize the only reason any of your side-projects are big is because you're in the Locust. By signing on to Epitaph, you will just destroy your underground following; and the mainstream will not catch on. So, you'll just end up destroying the Locust. Not that I have a problem with that."
"We get a lot of that crap, unfortunately," says Justin Pearson, bassist/frontman for the experimental San Diego-based spaz-core outfit, the Locust. "We just got one from Cleveland saying 'Next time you come here, you better bring your fuckin' bodyguard.' We don't have bodyguards, so we'll have to deal with it ourselves. We'll see what happens."
As bewildering as the threats of violence are to the scrawny members of the Locust -- guitarist Bobby Bray, keyboardist Joey Karam and drummer Gabe Serbian round out the group of malcontent twenty-somethings -- it should be old hat for the band by now. Controversy has shadowed the act since it inked a deal with Epitaph's subsidiary Anti-, last winter. Considering the indie imprint's eclectic roster also includes Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Merle Haggard, Eddie Izzard and Buju Banton, you'd think the addition of a noisy, avant-garde underground band would lift the spirits of misguided elitists and jealous scenesters rather than inspiring ire. It's Epitaph after all, not Geffen, not Warner Bros., and definitely not DreamWorks. Yeesh. Pearson blames the misconceptions on the information superhighway.
"The Internet spreads all kinds of horseshit for everyone to feed off," he says. "That we're racists. That we're firefighters. That we're rock stars with big egos. That we're rich and have a four-thousand-dollar guarantee for every show -- which we've never been paid. It's weird. Why would anyone even take the time to say that? They're wasting their time hating some fucking thing that doesn't really exist."
The vitriol has not been limited to just the intangible, though. At a show the band played in Florida ("Probably the shittiest state to play in the United States," Pearson notes), an enraged reveler hurled a barstool at the stage.
"I guess certain kinds of humans aren't very progressive," Pearson explains. "People are stuck with tradition and repetitive crap, so when someone different or new comes along, it's just confusing and frustrating, and they don't understand it."
The Locust's penchant for creating incomprehensible music probably hasn't done much to ease the confusion and frustration. Lost in a deafening barrage of tag-team histrionics, pummeling bass lines and double-kick drumming is a bleeding mass of sound somewhere between John Zorn's Torture Garden and the '70s-era sci-fi moog synthesizers made popular on Creature Features. Twittering electronics hold onto fast-paced, metal-gnashing noise for dear life. Non-audible lyrics spit in the eye of primal apprehension. And the average Locust tune rarely lasts longer than a minute ("Solar Panel Asses" sets the band's land-speed record at 26 seconds). Pearson and company seem to be celebrating the so-called short attention spans of today's youth.
Or it could just be happenstance.
"We'll get through about 25 songs in twenty-five minutes," Pearson says. "It's just four of us creating art in response to the world we live in. We never really set out to sound this way. It just kind of happened; I don't know why."
Relentless in its sonic assault, the band also injects its performances with a conceptually enhanced wardrobe that borders on insectoid: Skin-tight, mesh body suits the color of snot enhance each bandmember's rail-thin frame. "They have a terrorist sort of feel," says Pearson, "and this homoerotic, sexual thing."
Fittingly, the band's bizarre image and sound caught the attention of deviant filmmaker John Waters. During the making of 2000's Cecil B. Demented, Baltimore's renowned "Sultan of Sleaze" lifted a pair of Locust tunes for the soundtrack: "Nice Tranquil Thumb in Mouth" and "An Extra Piece of Dead Meat," both of which appear on the band's 1999 self-titled full-length release.
The qualities that color the band's Waters-approved tunes crop up on its Anti- debut, Plague Soundscapes. An impressive musical effort, the disc favors the sprint over the marathon, using jarring time signatures to constantly reroute shards of blistering instrumentation. Producer Alex Newport (At the Drive-In, the Melvins, Sepultura) separates the sounds like a master carpenter, building a steady but sustained feeling of dread and hopelessness. Propagating its own variation of the amber-waved apocalyptic nightmare, the Locust thumbs its nose at earthquakes, greets dementia with open arms, and pushes rednecks' buttons to the point of brawling. Meanwhile, the goofy, surreal titles of each outburst (enough to make Captain Beefheart proud) offer nanoseconds of comic relief: "The Half-Eaten Sausage Would Like to See You in His Office" rivals "Pulling the Christmas Pig by the Wrong Pair of Ears" for top absurdist honors. There's also "How to Become a Virgin," "Who Wants a Dose of the Clap?" and "Anything Jesus Does, I Can Do Better."
"Our set list looks like an essay of some sort," Pearson says with a laugh. "There's quite a bit of text on it."
Grandiloquence aside, Pearson is emphatic that the band's songs are more than just short bursts of screamed nonsense. He feels the group's sound cannot be confined to terse buzzwords created by pundits.
"I don't consider our band a screamo band," offers Pearson. "As far as pop culture goes, people have been screaming way before the U.K. -- or whoever -- coined that shitty term. What about Antioch Arrow? They happened ten years before the Blood Brothers. They sound a lot alike, and nobody was calling them screamo back then. They were just a punk band. Angel Hair, too. That culture existed, but no one marketed to it.
"I don't want it to be marketable to the masses," he continues. "Anytime culture is created, some fuck will take it and market it -- and pretty much rape it. Or murder it. They'll destroy it. But we're trying to destroy the ideas of how people think music should be. Like 4/4 time, chords, verses, lyrics and just songwriting in general."
The group may not be interested in marketing to the lowest common dominator, but it's also not above selling novelty items in the name of gas money either, which is an entirely different proposition altogether. The Locust feels no shame in offering a proud selection of questionable merchandise -- including soap, belt buckles and makeup compacts that can double as coke mirrors (as some of the band's detractors have claimed) -- to an unwitting public.
"To be any kind of performer, you definitely have to have a sense of humor," Pearson says. "I think a lot of people miss our humor. They just become violent. It's too bad, but that's people's outlet. They're all dealing with their personal issues, you know."
Pearson speaks from experience. In junior high, he had to find an outlet to deal with his own personal issues.
"First of all, I grew up in a really shitty, white-trash neighborhood, and I had some issues with my dad," Pearson says. "He was abusive to my mom. They were both alcoholics. And he ended up getting murdered when I was twelve.
"He was in an argument with some people at a bar and got kicked out," Pearson continues. "The guys who were trying to start some shit with him followed him back to our house and beat him up in our driveway -- on Halloween, actually. It was kind of a weird time. But that's how things went."
As a way of coping with his own anger and trauma, Pearson turned to the aggressive sounds of the Sex Pistols and formed a punk band called Struggle. Then in 1995, from the remnants of the Struggle and Swing Kids, the Locust unleashed its unique crop-damaging sound upon San Diego. Members of various other local outfits -- Tristeza, Tarantula Hawk, the Crimson Curse and Cattle Decapitation -- have all been part of the band's lineup at one time or another ever since. The list of vinyl-only releases from those days includes a five-inch picture disc, a split ten-inch with Man is the Bastard and a Queen tribute album titled Dynamite With a Laser Beam, on which the Locust covered "Flash's Theme." In 1999 the noise supremacists soon enraged their diehard fan base by releasing an EP of collaborations with Kid 606 and I Am Spoonbender.
"I'm surprised we've made it this far, honestly," says Pearson, speaking as much about his band as the planet at large. "I really don't know. It seems like it's just getting more fucked up as we go on: war, terrorism, the media. Maybe something will click and force a revolution on the pigs of the world."
Pearson hopes the music of the Locust, which he views as an honest reaction to cultural and societal oppression, will spark such an uprising.
"I think the main political thing for our band is the way we live and the way we function," Pearson says. "We don't play Clear Channel shows. We only play all-ages venues. We try to keep the door price relatively cheap. Those things are all very political. The way you live your life is the first step to changing the world."
Pearson also takes the one-sided, musical-tastemaking journalists to task.
"I doubt that these people could do what we do," says Pearson referring to what he describes as "some asshole that sits in an office in New York and writes for all these pseudo, pretentious magazines.
"It's not easy," he continues. "There's no catchy, sing-along riffs. If they're gonna write a review and say we're noise and screaming and don't make sense -- and that it doesn't take talent -- maybe those journalists have no talent, you know what I mean?"
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