When you think of Athens, Georgia, it's nearly impossible not to hear music. A college town with its own creative ecosystem, the unlikely Southern artistic outpost has churned out a truly remarkable number of great — or at least noteworthy — bands in various genres over the past few decades: R.E.M., the B-52s, Vic Chesnutt, Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal, Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, Matthew Sweet, Widespread Panic, Jucifer and Drive-By Truckers are just a few of the acts associated with Athens. With a number of adventurous venues and the support of the University of Georgia, the city has become an incubator for new American music.
There's nothing shocking, then, about a small group of musicians following their creative muses from North Carolina to Athens, as bassist Ben Clack and singer/guitarist Jim McHugh of Dark Meat did just four years ago. What is remarkable, however, is what happened once they got there.
"We never set out to start a huge band," explains McHugh of the outsized art-rock collective, which occasionally counts as many as eighteen players among its members. "It just happened." This, as McHugh points out, could only have happened in Athens. "You could hear us practicing, thundering out over the block," he recalls of the psychedelic ensemble's early days. "People would just show up with a fiddle and want to play. Without Athens, there would be no Dark Meat."
With Mark Mallman and Dario Rosa, 8 p.m. Thursday, May 1, hi-dive, 7 South Broadway, $8, 720-570-4500.
Part of what makes the band and the town special is the nearby intentional community called Orange Twin. Part record label and part commune, Orange Twin Conservation Community was founded by Elf Power's Laura Carter to support the arts and eco-friendly living in the Athens area. "On a random Wednesday," enthuses McHugh, who also works on the farm and does copywriting and administrative work for the record label, "there'll be an outside show at the farm, with a punk band and a potluck with a roadkill deer that they've cooked up."
This supportive and creatively fertile environment led to the formation of Dark Meat and the completion of its first album, Universal Indians. Combining garage-rock cockiness, punk-rock snottiness and free-jazz skronkiness, the group's debut could have — and should have — been an artistic mess. Instead, intriguing lyrics, solid songs and no shortage of sticky melodies make its eleven ambitious tracks a liberating, soul-stirring, hip-grinding experience. While the meaty horn section alternates between honks and hooks, McHugh's vocals soar and growl, and the rest of the group creates a dense sonic assault that might best be described as tribal acid rock. Track titles like "Well Fuck You Then," "Assholes for Eyeballs" and "There Is a Retard on Acid Holding a Hammer to Your Brain" should alert you that something out of the ordinary — something worthy of Zappa and Zorn — is afoot. Originally released by Orange Twin Records in 2006, the record has just been remastered and re-released by Vice Records. While touring on a record that's over a year old might be difficult for some bands, Dark Meat finds that the tour is doing wonders to inspire the outfit's next recording.
"The feeling that went into that record still exists," says bassist Clack. "But some of the material isn't really suitable for us right now. The musical direction is expanding in a lot of ways. Playing 300 shows with the same group of people, you get into different things. We can go heavy into a jazz area or a psychedelic area, and the musical chemistry among the band is much stronger."
"Some of those songs are basically obsolete," agrees McHugh, "and some of them have changed and grown. We made that record at a really early stage in our band, and I stand beside it as a document of where we were. We wanted to make a Crazy Horse record with free-jazz parts. Now we're a dronier, psychedelicized band." For McHugh, this is all part of his natural evolution as a songwriter. "The music I wrote in North Carolina sounded nothing like this," he insists. "I became immediately attuned to how positive people are in Athens. The music I wrote before was darker and bummed out."
Dark Meat's music gets an added dose of positivity from the huge ensemble vibe. Imagine a standard four-piece rock band with a huge horn section and a choir of backing vocalists. You might start to picture the Polyphonic Spree, but where that musical conglomerate comes off like a new-age cult, Dark Meat is more like the atonal, experimental-rock version of the Merry Pranksters. At first listen, the outfit's sound seems relatively simple, but seventeen musicians playing at once are bound to create some complexity.
"Dark Meat is really into more...of anything," McHugh points out. "We need that five-piece horn section, and the harmony singing is totally necessary. Our two-drummer attack has become indispensable in terms of our free-jazz stuff. Transmitting our message requires all these people. At heart, we're a shitty garage band, but that's not what we're trying to do."
What Dark Meat is trying to do is tour, but that has its own specific challenges when the minimum size of the whole organization is fifteen people. The band travels in a converted bus, which allows everyone room to sleep, and cooks many of its meals on a propane camp stove.
"The biggest difficulty is trying to make sure that everybody's on the same page and getting there on time," says Clack. "But there's not a lot of problems. Actually, the hardest part is paying for gas."
"It used to be coordinating our piss schedules," adds McHugh, "but it's really hard to keep everybody emotionally and nutritionally satisfied. We've gotten better at that. We actually make chow lines in parking lots. Most of us have worked in restaurants, so we can throw down."
Dark Meat hangs together as a unit, even when it comes to the age-old touring dilemma of what music to listen to on the road. "Our bus doesn't have a centralized sound system," McHugh explains, "so we end up just playing together a lot. We've learned a lot of Fairport Convention and Pogues songs, and we play those for hours."
In the midst of its hectic touring schedule, the unwieldy rock orchestra still manages to write new songs, and the bandmembers can't wait to get back in the studio to document the current sound.
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"We hope to get the majority of the tracking done when we get back from tour," says McHugh. "We're already pretty tight after the first week of touring, so when we come back to Athens, we're going to record it as raw as we can and try to keep as many studio bells and whistles out of it."
Because the outfit's sound has evolved so much during the time that has elapsed since its debut, expect Dark Meat's sophomore effort to sound a bit different. "The chief inspirations," McHugh promises, "will be Sufis, the Boredoms and the Stooges." If anyone can pull off that train wreck of influences, it will be the diverse musical talents and personalities that make up Dark Meat. To illustrate the group's ambitious scope, McHugh points out that its original full name was Dark Meat Vomit Laser Family Band Galaxy.
"We're not a band," says the frontman. "We're a universe. And every member is its own planet."