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Punk Minus the Pop

"The punk you see around now is the glam metal of the Nineties," says Josh Lent, the vocalist for Clusterfux. "It's almost to the point where it's embarrassing to say you're a punk, because people think of that cute little kid bouncing up and down with the pink mohawk wearing his brand-new bondage pants from the Park Meadows Mall."
Josh's brother, guitarist Justin Lent, and the rest of Clusterfux--vocalist Jessica Stahl, drummer Matt Sarterio and a bassist who calls himself Moose--certainly don't conform to such stereotypes. By contrast with the pop punk judged safe enough to appear on MTV's Total Request Live, the band offers up raging aggression by way of a molten composite of hard-core and thrash metal. This brashness carries over to the group's notorious live performances, which have deteriorated into chaos on occasion. At first, Justin tries to downplay this reputation: "We've gotten backlash since we've started playing, because kids in the suburbs used to make up all kinds of rumors about us." But, he concedes, "we didn't really help any at our shows, because there was some violence, and we would kind of egg it on. Whenever we play 'Get Tough' by Bad Posture, it starts a fight."

The band's beginnings stretch back to 1995, when Josh was living in the Lents' hometown of Carbondale, a smallish community on Colorado's Western Slope that's not exactly known as a punk-rock hotbed. Fortunately, though, Josh knew Sonny Kay, then an important figure in Denver-Boulder punk; Kay worked closely with the University of Colorado-Boulder Program Council, booked the on-campus venue Club 156, promoted shows at other area rooms, and performed with the VSS, a punky combo profiled in these pages several years back ("The VSS Enterprise," August 16, 1995). When Kay, who has since moved to California, called Josh to ask if he would like to open an appearance by New Jersey's Blanks 77, Josh answered in the affirmative even though he wasn't officially in a band. Afterward, he got in touch with Justin, who was living in the Denver area. "My brother was like, 'Move down here and be in our band,'" Josh remembers. "So I came down, and what would have been our fifth practice ended up being our first gig. We had all the lyrics on the stage."

In the three-plus years since its debut, Clusterfux has developed a sound that's indebted equally to the British punk of acts like the Exploited and the thrash metal of Exodus. The heavy rhythms churned up by Sarterio and Moose couple with the alternating vocals of Stahl and the Lents to create a massive sound that defies easy description--which is just the way the players like it. "I don't want to be constantly labeled," Justin says. "It's just annoying when people try to put labels on you. What we're trying to do is something original."

Nevertheless, the various Clusterfux feel a kinship with other Colorado punk outsiders. To that end, they've started their own label, Queen City Punks, as a forum for local noisemakers. "This isn't just for our group of punks," Justin insists. "It's for all the punk bands from around here that get no credit."

Thus far, Queen City Punks has two releases under its belt: a single featuring Clusterfux, Up Yours; Fucked at Birth and the Homesick Abortions; and a split twelve-inch co-starring Clusterfux and Up Yours. But the players are most excited about an upcoming Clusterfux full-length that finds them moving in some interesting new directions. "There are a lot of changes and a lot more intricate riffs," Josh says. "We throw solos and leads into our songs. A lot of bands aren't doing that, because they think it's not cool anymore. But as everybody gets better, we're able to hear the music better, and I think we've found a niche. To me, it's a crossover from the Nineties to the Eighties, kind of like the Accused and DRI--the bands that first melded punk and metal together."

Lyrically, the majority of the material is just as challenging. "We're not singing about girls," Josh warns. "Most of it comes from what's going on in the world--like war, which is a favorite punk-rock topic. But I try to write them a little different. Like one song is about this guy in a trench where all his buddies are dead, and it tells about the thoughts that go through his head. Most of it is dark imagery."

There are exceptions, however. Take "For Your Viewing Pleasure," in which the group declares its affection for the cathode ray. "I like to watch TV," Justin confesses with a laugh. "Punk bands are always like, 'Smash your TV,' but I say fuck them. I love TV, so we wrote a kind of sarcastic song about sitting on your fat ass and watching TV all day."

The recording is set for release later this summer, and thanks to the attention the band received for its appearance on Hymns for the Hearing Impaired, a compilation disc on Denver's Bad People Records, a Canadian company has already offered a distribution deal. A tour in support of the album is a possibility, but if it happens, the musicians will probably stick to the warehouse circuit rather than appearing at 21-and-over shows, where they've encountered problems that Justin chalks up to the combination of too much alcohol and too little punk-rock knowledge.

"For the most part, a lot of these kids never really had a chance to experience a real punk band," he says. "Most of the time you get these new-school pop-punk bands that have nothing to do with our style of punk, so kids come to our shows and they just can't handle things."

In other words, only real punks need apply.

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James Mayo

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