"I try to get to this point on stage where I'm totally out of my head," says Red Sparowes drummer and former Coloradan David Clifford. "Like I'm not even physically there. What we're going for is the same as ritual, cathartic music. I hate to use the word 'tribal.'"
Even so, tribal may just be the perfect descriptor for the music Clifford's Los Angeles-based quintet churns out. At the Soundless Dawn, Red Sparowes' debut full-length, is a pounding, trance-inducing epic akin to a communion of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the Swans and Sister-era Sonic Youth. "It's really droning and repetitive, like gamelan music," he expounds, "stuff that you wouldn't necessarily think of as pop. I think that's what makes it cool. That's one of the interesting things about classical music, too. Sometimes it sounds like it's meandering and going all kinds of places, but within that structure, you can interweave sounds in a way that captures people's emotional or UR response."
And rhythmic transcendence isn't the only kind of tribalism evident in Red Sparowes. The five-piece comprises members of one of experimental rock's most lauded clans: the axis of Neurosis and Isis, two outfits that have utterly reconfigured the sonic and conceptual parameters of heavy music. Isis's guitarist, Bryant Clifford Meyer, started Red Sparowes two years ago with guitarist Josh Graham, the visual artist who has long provided Neurosis with its stunning on-stage film projections. The lineup was rounded out by bassist and pedal-steel guitarist Greg Burns, drummer Dana Berkowitz and Isis bassist Jeff Caxide on guitar; when Berkowitz and Caxide left the band in late 2004 after completing work on Soundless Dawn, Clifford and guitarist/bassist Andy Arahood stepped in to fill the void.
Clifford and Arahood were part of a celebrated, if not quite as famous, clan themselves. From the early to mid-'90s, Arahood played guitar in Angel Hair, the most mimicked and viscerally explosive hardcore band to ever come out of Colorado; Clifford drummed for the VSS, an artier but equally influential group that vocalist Sonny Kay -- who now sings for Year Future and co-owns the indie label GSL with Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of the Mars Volta -- started upon Angel Hair's disbandment. You can't throw a rock without hitting some sassy post-hardcore act aping the spastic assault of Angel Hair or the keyboard-driven, near-gothic tones of the VSS, even if it's just a trickle-down influence from the Blood Brothers or At the Drive-In, just two of the hundreds of bands that have made clear their love for Clifford and Arahood's early output.
"It's flattering to me that people still remember that stuff," Arahood humbly allows. "It surprises me how influential it was. I really had no idea. After Angel Hair, I was in a couple of small bands, but I never did any real tours for a long time. I had no concept that that sound was still going on. I still run into people that know it and like it, and even people who just heard it recently for the first time, which is cool. It's a nice surprise."
In 1996, Arahood moved to San Francisco after a brief stint with Why Planes Go Down, a band he formed with Luke Fairchild (White Dynamite, Git Some). Soon after, Clifford and the VSS also headed for the Bay. And when things fell apart in 1997, the band resurrected itself as Slaves. Within months, Slaves had renamed itself Pleasure Forever and signed to Sub Pop, releasing two critically praised albums full of seething, near-psychotropic abandon.
"I've always been interested in that, keeping one foot in reality and one foot out," says Clifford, who also plays bass in GSL's theatrically aggressive blues-punk signee the Starvations. "One of the biggest influences on the VSS, besides the regular post-punk kinds of things, were bands like Neurosis, who utilized heavy music in an entirely new way, taking elements of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath and combining it with tribal beats and psychedelic music and hardcore. They were just trying to merge genres in a way that sounded interesting.
"The same thing with Andy and Angel Hair," he continues. "Angel Hair was a bit more rote of a band, but at the time, it sounded extremely unique. They were all about the expenditure of energy at the fastest rate possible. I think the VSS was trying to do that, too, but we wanted our songs to be really condensed with sound. Pleasure Forever was exploring ways of doing that more subtly, and Red Sparowes uses droning sounds for a similar effect. I feel like being in Red Sparowes is continuing and refining these same ideas, this kind of psychedelic experience that I've always been interested in."
Well, maybe not always. Before the VSS, Clifford played in Again, a band that pegged itself as straight-edge, the offshoot of hardcore that fanatically abstains from drugs and alcohol. And Arahood has just as blackmail-worthy a past: As a high school kid in suburban Chicago, he was in a pop-punk combo called Tearjerker. "When I was living in Chicago, I was into all the pop punk like Screeching Weasel," Arahood confesses. "There was a mixture of that and old punk like Naked Raygun or Life Sentence. When I moved out to Boulder for college, it was more of a California sound. The San Diego hardcore scene was getting popular, and people in Colorado knew about it, whereas when I was in Chicago, no one had ever heard of that stuff."
The '90s San Diego scene that Arahood is referencing was (and continues to be) notoriously inbred, centered around groups like Unbroken, Struggle, Drive Like Jehu, Heroin, Antioch Arrow and Clikitat Ikatowi, many of which wound up on the Gravity Records imprint. Angel Hair and the VSS were two of the only acts outside of San Diego to ever have releases on Gravity. And like many of the older bands from that era, whose members recombined to form offshoots such as Hot Snakes, Get Hustle, the Locust, Holy Molar and Some Girls, Clifford and Arahood reconvened late last year in Red Sparowes, a decade after their past bands played together at Colorado venues like the Aztlan Theatre and Club 156.
Despite all the fulfillment Clifford has found in the dark, mesmerizing magnificence of Red Sparowes, lately he's been feeling twinges of Colorado nostalgia. In his blog for the nationally notorious website Buddyhead.com, lately he's been writing about Munly and the Lee Lewis Harlots and Cavity, an early-'90s Boulder-based outfit whose drummer, Eric Van Leuven, now plays in Breezy Porticos.
"I was born in Boulder," he says, "and I still really consider it my home. Comparatively, having been around the country and the world touring over the last few years, I've seen that people in Denver really react to music very openly. It's just a natural response. There are a lot of great bands and a lot of energy. Some of my favorite bands continue coming out of Colorado. It's a place where there are a lot of weirdos, and having that kind of isolated, weirdo culture generates a lot more interesting music and ideas than in places like California."
Clifford and Arahood weren't the only ones from that era of Colorado punk to break out of the state and make their marks elsewhere. One of Angel Hair's local contemporaries, Christie Front Drive, is still legendary in emo circles, with Jimmy Eat World itself citing the act as an influence. And players from other obscure, homegrown outfits like Junkdrawer and T Tauri moved away and ended up in Year Future and New York's acclaimed noise unit, Black Dice.
"It was a cool bunch of guys doing creative stuff," Arahood remembers. "The people that were around were musicians at heart. We've always been kind of drawn together, and I think it was inevitable that we were going to go on to other things. Being from Colorado didn't seem like a hindrance at all. If anything, the closeness of it was good. It's been a long time since I lived there, but back then, no one was in competition with each other. All the bands were friends, and we all worked to help each other. It helped to create something tight and productive and positive."
"Something else that's really cool about the whole Colorado thing," he adds, "is the fact that so many people who played together in the past wound up doing stuff together again. Maybe it's because it's so isolated from the rest of the country. There's this sense that we all came from the same experience."
And that's about as tribal as you can get.
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