Destruction Unit Is Arizona's Loudest, Most Uncompromising Band, and the Rest of the World Is Taking Notice
Destruction Unit: (from left) Nick Nappa, J.S. Aurelius, Rusty Rousseau, Andrew Flores, and Ryan Rousseau
"Did you park on the street?"
Destruction Unit guitarist Jes "J.S." Aurelius has a frantic look as he makes his way through the small clusters of punks gathered at Apartment 512 Gallery. High walls block the venue from Van Buren Street, keeping in most of the throbbing sounds emanating from a small side shed, but it's still loud, entirely too loud for a sleepy Tuesday night in August at a makeshift performance space in downtown Phoenix.
Wearing a billowing button-down and white jeans, Aurelius has close-cropped blond hair and boyish, fresh-faced features, but he moves through the crowd with an authoritative demeanor. It seems there's a cop somewhere outside the gathering, and the neighbors have taken to reporting cars on the street. "Park in the dirt lot or alley," Aurelius reminds everyone, repeating the command scrawled on a handwritten note posted at the entrance off the alleyway, where two black-clad punks charge eight bucks to get in.
The scene is half art party, half concert, billed by Aurelius' Society of Musical Esotericism as "the heaviest gig of the summer." DJ Maniac Cop — an ironic name, given the rumors of law enforcement just outside the courtyard — spins Janet Jackson 45s at 33 1/3 speed to create ghostly, languid sounds and blends ambient noise and soundscapes into Debbie Deb's 1987 freestyle classic "Look Out Weekend" as an assortment of young people pass joints and linger near a massive half-pipe. Inside the suffocatingly hot shed, Total Abuse and Breathing Problem, on tour from Texas, and Deterge and Rectal Hygienics, on tour from Illinois, create ungodly, caustic noise.
The night concludes with hometown boys Destruction Unit taking the stage and launching into a blisteringly fast screed as guitar amps cycle feedback. The volume is punishing, rattling rib cages, and the intense wall of sound couples with the heat to create a kind of sensory-deprivation chamber. Destruction Unit demands attention when it plays, and it achieves that aim through sheer, uncompromised volume.
Earlier in the day, Spin published a glowing feature on the band, with writer Colin Joyce calling its music "a bid for nothing else but your attention from five guys who work hard enough to deserve it," and the same day, Ben Ratliff of the New York Times wrote lovingly that the band's "billowing five-guitar pileups proved that excess can be better, even in punk." This kind of national press is typical for the band, which has been written up in Pitchfork, Vice, and Rolling Stone. But none of the national acclaim matters much to the roughly 50 dedicated attendees in this shed. The band's slogan, "The New American Heavy Underground," is more than just clever ad copy; it's fact — the band plays this kind of DIY gig as often as club dates.
Over the past five years, Destruction Unit has emerged as one of Phoenix's most thrilling musical exports. Its blend of radical politics, punk ethics, extreme sonics, and unrelenting touring schedule has earned the band a nationwide audience of devoted followers. The band's led by Ryan Rousseau, a punk lifer who started his musical "career" — though he'd likely balk at use of the term — in 1994. Though the lineup has revolved, the core group of Nick Nappa, J.S. Aurelius, Andrew Flores, and Ryan's brother, Rusty Rousseau, solidified in 2013 with the triumphant album Deep Trip. This September, the group released its second album for Brooklyn label Sacred Bones, Negative Feedback Resistor, first issued as a free download by television network Adult Swim and then on compact disc and vinyl. Equal parts psychedelic tapestry and hardcore punk burst, it furthers the band's reputation as one of the loudest and most abrasive in the country.
Before the band takes the stage, Rousseau takes a hit off a joint and surveys the crowd, noting "crusties, geeks, babes" smoking cigarettes and sipping Gatorade. Tall and lanky — resembling a gaunt Johnny Knoxville and sporting a cowboy shirt and black jeans — Rousseau, 37, has played underground rock his entire adult life, and over that time, he's witnessed the lines between subcultures disintegrate.
Destruction Unit represents this idea: swirling psych alongside vintage hardcore. Drummer Andrew Flores spends his time making minimal house music as Jock Club, guitarists Aurelius and Nappa create damaged industrial music as Marshstepper, and Aurelius helms the conceptual art collective Ascetic House, prone to releasing mystic dark wave and electronic music on cassette and crafting manifestos about dismantling the prison industrial complex.
The diversity of sound "makes for a better party," Rousseau says, but even as Destruction Unit has toured and expanded its sound, its roots stretch back to Ryan and bassist Rusty's youth in Yuma in the early 1980s, and the beginning of the 2000s, with Jay Reatard and Alijca Trout in Memphis.
There's not much to do in Yuma. In 2014, the city earned the dubious honor of having the highest unemployment rate in the United States. It was not remarkably better in the early '90s, when the Rousseau brothers first got into punk, inspired by skate videos. Rousseau fell in with some older friends, like future bandmate Luis Padilla, who was into metal like Slayer and Metallica, but also punk like the Misfits and the Seattle label Sub Pop's alternative rock.
"Luis had Phantom Surfers, Mummies, early Estrus Records stuff," Rousseau says, sipping a beer at Cornish Pasty Co. in Tempe. His girlfriend, local DJ and proprietor of online boutique Litter & Vintage, Amy Love, mans the jukebox, spinning Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' "Red Right Hand."
"I was, like, 'What's this shit? That's fuckin' wild!" Rousseau explains. "So I got into Estrus [Records] shit. I traded Luis probably some bootleg Nirvana or some shit for the Mummies, Phantom Surfers. I started getting into garage rock shit."
Rousseau augmented his bootleg trades with trips to the local secondhand store, D&H Music, where he scored rockabilly tapes by Johnny Burnette and Eddie Cochran and glam rock by the New York Dolls. When his mother would make trips to Phoenix to shop, Rousseau would haunt Tempe's Eastside Records, where he'd pick up Maximum Rock'n'Roll magazine, which served as a guide into the worlds of punk, garage rock, hardcore, and other underground sounds. He's been a record collector ever since, amassing a massive collection of private-press folk, Christian psych, new age, ambient, and punk records.
He got a drum set at 16 and formed a band, The Fuckaires. The project was short-lived, but his next, the Killed By Death-influenced The Wongs, quickly established itself in the "Maximum Rock'n'Roll scene," signing to Rip Off Records and releasing seven-inch singles. The band played Phoenix, performing at Hollywood Alley and Nita's Hideaway, where Rousseau met Jack Oblivian, of garage punk greats the Oblivians and Goner Records in Memphis.
Rousseau's family — including Rusty — had moved to Memphis, he explained to Jack, and he was thinking about doing the same.
"I told him I couldn't get a job here. I was too partied out," Rousseau says.
Oblivian suggested Rousseau look up a local 15-year-old named Jimmy Lindsey, who'd sent him crude solo recordings under the name Jay Reatard.
In Memphis, Rousseau got a job with FedEx, which would sustain his punk rock lifestyle until 2014. He called Lindsey's number, but it was disconnected. He didn't think much of it.
He put up a flyer at local club the Shangri-La, which read "I wanna start a band, Killed By Death, Teengenerate, New York Dolls, Johnny Thunders, '70s punk.'" One of the responses to the ad was from Lindsey.
"Next thing I know, I pick up this kid from some shithole house," Rousseau says. "Comes out with fuckin' long hair. I was, like, 'Ah, fuck, what am I getting into?' Soon as he got in the car, I knew I was in trouble."
Along with guitarist Steve Albundy, the two formed The Reatards, everybody taking on the offensive moniker, à la the Ramones. The band's full-length debut, Teenage Hate, was issued by Goner in 1998, a nasty slab of distorted punk that nonetheless demonstrated Lindsey's melodic ambitions (in addition to covering punk stalwarts Fear and the Dead Boys, the album featured Buddy Holly's "Ollie Vee").
"We drove around the city getting wasted, recording on the four-track at my house," Rousseau says.
But neither Lindsey nor Rousseau could sit in one musical place very long. Lindsey formed the Lost Sounds and the Bad Times, while Rousseau, eager to get out of Memphis and back to Phoenix, did so and formed a series of bands along the way: Tokyo Electron, Earthmen and Strangers, Yuma Territorial Prison Guard. The two continued playing together, with Rousseau hitching rides on FedEx freight planes to shuttle between the cities. In 2004, the duo teamed with Memphis punk Alicja Trout for a thrashy synth album called Self Destruction of Man, labeling the project Destruction Unit, named for a song by Phoenix hardcore legends The Feederz. It was new territory for Rousseau, inspired by synth punk like Nervous Gender and the Screamers, and cosmic German art rock — "krautrock." And it was, despite significant contributions from Trout and Lindsey, definitively Rousseau's project.
"Destruction Unit to me, from the get-go, was always my deal," Rousseau says.
He says "deal" with heavy emphasis, not so much indicating his possession of the band, but rather accenting how much of himself he dedicates to the project. The trio of Trout, Lindsey, and Rousseau followed up with Death to the Old Flesh in 2006, before Rousseau turned his attention to other projects, like the post-punk band Earthmen and Strangers, with his old friend Luis Padilla on guitar.
Lindsey began a solo career in earnest, releasing the melodic punk classic Blood Visions on In the Red Records. The record heightened his profile, and in 2008, he signed with esteemed independent label Matador Records after a major-label bidding war. As his sound grew more pop-focused, so did the idea that he was poised for a major breakthrough. He toured with the Pixies and released a single with Beck. There were plans for Matador to distribute Lindsey's label, Shattered Records, and an Earthmen and Strangers record was planned.
But in January 2010, Lindsey was found dead in his home in Memphis. Autopsy results revealed he died of "cocaine toxicity" and that "alcohol was a contributing factor in his death." He was 29. Among the many in the garage rock community devastated by his death, Rousseau was hit especially hard. Later that year, he released Eclipse, a solo album put out under the Destruction Unit banner. Its sounds were languid and droning, more meditative than his previous albums. Rousseau's records usually sounded like a party; Eclipse sounded like a funeral.
With Eclipse, Destruction Unit was reborn. Rousseau still kicked around other projects — a psychedelic folk outfit called Ryan Rousseau and his Desert Children, and a swampy, dank electronic/hip-hop thing called Gila Man — but increasingly, his vision narrowed in on Destruction Unit.
In 2011, the band released Sonoran on Volar Records. Psychedelic and droning, its massive riffs were drawn out and extended, sounding like cult German art-rock band Amon Düül II wandering the Arizona desert. It was no coincidence that its space rock sound corresponded with Rousseau's increased marijuana intake.
"I didn't really know him before that," Volar Records owner Craig Oliver says, noting that as touring bands crashed at Rousseau's place, they left behind bits of their stash. Eventually, he decided to partake.
"He became such a massive stoner," Oliver says.
Songs like "Desert Sun" and "Death Tunnel" benefitted from Rousseau's new baked outlook, but also from an expanded lineup. With his brother, Rusty, on bass, Destruction Unit featured guitarist Nick Nappa, Becky Lee on keyboards, and drummer Justin Keefer. No longer a solo project, the band took on a new weight.
"That record especially, it's such a spacey, long thing," Oliver says.
Rousseau was on a tear, and he began recording in earnest. Lee exited the band, and Rousseau recruited another guitarist, J.S. Aurelius of local agit-punk outfit Pigeon Religion, and the band decamped to the Kofa Mountains near Yuma to record a follow-up record, armed with trunkfuls of gear and a generator. The record never materialized, but in 2012, the band released Void on Jolly Dream Records. It got notice. Pitchfork's Evan Minsker reviewed the album, offering a middling review but stating plainly: "Nearly every song offers the aural equivalent of walking into a bar full of stereotypical biker toughs — everything's muscular, intimidating, mean."
The band toured nonstop, while Aurelius dedicated himself to an art collective called Ascetic House. More than a label, the collective issued tapes, records, and zines, all featuring mystical, esoteric imagery. As Destruction Unit's profile climbed, so did Ascetic House's, and the two entities developed a symbiotic relationship, sharing Aurelius' flair for visual style and spiritual, political-poetic language. Writing for U.K. underground publication The Wire, Louis Pattison stated the collective's work "points outwards to past political, spiritual, and counterculture groups, from Paris' Mouvement Panique to the Sonic Arts Union, the Situationist Internationale, and the Black Panthers."
The band's social media presence — always minimal — began to take on a rhetorical tone. Many bands broadcast each move via Twitter and Facebook, but Destruction Unit instead formulated an air of mystery and danger. Press latched on, referring constantly to the band's dark image, the cultish nature of Ascetic House, and the band's purportedly massive intake of psychedelics.
In 2013, the band released its first proper studio album, Deep Trip, on New York label Sacred Bones Records, which has released albums by Zola Jesus and filmmakers David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, and John Carpenter. Sacred Bones co-owner Caleb Braaten had loved Rousseau's work with the Reatards and was drawn to the new psychedelic incarnation.
"They are one of the best punk bands without being punk and one of the best psychedelic bands without being psychedelic," Braaten says via e-mail. "Truly unique."
Deep Trip represented the finest presentation of Destruction Unit's ethos so far. Packed in shimmering, wobble-inducing psychedelic packaging — with blotter tabs included — it featured a new drummer, Andrew Flores, then only 19, whose direct, hardcore-inspired drumming style propelled the band's reverb and fuzz-caked grooves. Rousseau's deep croon resonated on songs like "Bumpy Road" and was cloaked in deep echo on songs like "Control the Light," recalling the rockabilly idols of his youth, but transmuted cosmically.
The band's tour schedule — and on-stage volume — intensified. In 2014, it circulated its rider via the Ascetic House Tumblr page, which included specific instructions to sound techs: "Our amps do not turn down, the knobs are glued in place. Our amps do not turn sideways away from the crowd. They do not turn backwards. If there is a legal decibel limit in your city, we can't play your city unless you are willing to risk it or pay the fine."
The rider caused some consternation at first, Rousseau says — though it makes clear that there is no disrespect intended and ends with a sincere "peace and love" — but there was no budging.
"This is our band. This is how we do it," he says. With a firm lineup of Aurelius, Nappa, Flores, and Rusty in place, Destruction Unit had bloomed into more than the sum of its parts. Rousseau cracks a sidewise grin, addressing the sound men and promoters who doubted their resolve initially.
"This is what we're gonna fucking do," he says staunchly.
Destruction Unit's 2015 album, Negative Feedback Resistor, opens and closes with washes of ambient noise. Everything between is harsh and pummeling, manic hardcore riffs played at maximum speed, buried in distortion, fuzz, feedback. Mixing the record took a few passes, to beef up the sound of the drums and bass. Rousseau prefers the earlier versions.
"To me, the raw recordings we did . . . I have a tape of it," Rousseau says. "We recorded it, they gave us a tape, we went on tour for a couple weeks. We listened to it . . . To me, this tape of the raw fuckin' live shit is the best."
Rousseau's favorite Destruction Unit album is a concert recording, Live in San Francisco, released in February 2015 by Bay Area label Castle Face Records. "The volume is always colossal . . . Putting microphones on these Arizona weirdos is similar to trying to get a decent recording of a soccer riot — getting Ryan to sing into our microphone is like shooting a hummingbird with a spitball from across a gorge — but we've done it," wrote label head John Dwyer in the album liner notes.
But there's no denying Negative Feedback Resistor. It's intense and sun-baked; it sounds as if it's disintegrating as it spins on the turntable. It's sprawling, even by the expansive standards of Destruction Unit. It features saxophone, synthesizer, and extra guitar textures (yes, more guitar) by punk icon Don Bolles. Best known for his work with Los Angeles band the Germs, which was featured in Penelope Spheeris' pioneering documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, Bolles got his start in the Phoenix punk scene with the Exterminators. He was hipped to the band by his friend, Alix Brown of Golden Triangle, sharing the stage with it one night in Los Angeles.
Bolles introduced himself to Rousseau. "I said, 'I think you guys named your band after one of my songs,' and they were like, 'Whoa, really, you were in the Feederz?' I said no, I wasn't in the Feederz, but some of my songs were."
He recognizes a distinctly Southwestern aura to what Destruction Unit does, an extremity that exists in the state's most daring musical legacies, like the Meat Puppets, the Sun City Girls, the Consumers, and the Feederz. "Arizona seems to breed these things, these crazy things, insane bands like Destruction Unit," Bolles says. "Look at the things that come from there, except maybe Stevie Nicks."
The album was released by Sacred Bones Records in conjunction with Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, which paid for the record's recording and offered it as a free download in advance of its physical release.
"Adult Swim has an adventurous musical identity and discovery of new sounds is something our audience has let us know they want from us," Adult Swim's Jason DeMarco says via email. "Destruction Unit is a band that deserves more exposure, and what other TV network would put out their music?"
The answer, of course, is none. Adult Swim's musical branch, Williams Street Records, has become a go-to source for unique musical weirdness, releasing music by rap duo Run the Jewels, electronic producer Skrillex, electro-pop provocateur Peaches, and metal icons Slayer. The label — like Destruction Unit — utilizes arcane symbols and occult imagery. One has to wonder whether DeMarco's received any memos from the higher-ups and Turner Broadcasting asking exactly what's going on there.
"Honestly? Nah," DeMarco writes. "As we have no larger agenda, we aren't worried too much about what others think of it. Or, we're an Illuminati-led cabal bent on world domination through . . . a comedy network. Take your pick!"
Like Deep Trip's, the record's visual profile is striking. Its cover features work by counterculture artist Barry Elkanick, and it includes a large poster, with an MC5-evoking message from the band that speaks its sense of identity. "This is crazed-psychedelic-freek-noise guerrilla warfare and these are our streets. The pigs of the law can use their system to manipulate and censor our messages. The control creeps can keep their airwaves safe and comfortable. But none of them have been able to make us turn our voices or our guitar amps down."
In 2014, Rousseau quit his job at FedEx, focusing solely on music for the first time in his adult life. When questioned as to whether the move has allowed him to "make a living," he laughs.
"Fuck no," Rousseau says. "Each tour, we come back with some cheese, pay some bills. But then you have to get back out there for the next one."
In October, the band returned from a European and Canadian tour and announced it was going into indefinite hibernation. In an interview with Chris Shaw of Ex-Cult for Vice music blog Noisey, Aurelius expressed the importance of the band members' individual side projects.
"With how much we tour as Destruction Unit, if we didn't have other outlets to go to, the band would probably crumble pretty quickly or implode and self-destruct," he explained.
Beyond the band name, the idea of creative destruction always is present in the work of Destruction Unit. It all sounds and feels volatile, like the wheels could spin off at any point. The noise, the tours, the trips. Is it sustainable? Could it simply burn out?
"It could," Rousseau admits, finishing off his beer as Love pops a few more quarters in the jukebox. "We'll see. You never know . . . Nick and Jess might be like, 'Fuck it, I'm gonna do Marshstepper.' [Flores] might be like, 'Fuck it, I'm gonna do Jock Club and not deal with you motherfuckers.' We'll see. But as far as I'm concerned, I'm gonna keep creating music."
Rousseau grins and continues: "We don't ever plan this," he says. Destruction Unit — as loud, as fiery, and as powerful as it is — simply seems to happen when someone proposes a schedule or the label asks for another record. Whatever Destruction Unit does next, it'll be on its members' terms. And spiritually, physically, and aesthetically, it will be loud.
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