Blowing up a borrowed amp belonging to a guy who plays a Flying V and is known to wear face paint or cover himself in blood should be badge of honor for a local band. Blowing up an amp that belongs to notably loud garage-punk Jay Reatard? Shit, Earthmen and Strangers frontman Ryan "Elvis Wong" Rousseau ought to put that on his résumé instead of just laughing it off between sips of Seven and whiskey.
"Yeah, I blew that amp up," he says about his friend and oft-collaborator's amp at a Los Angeles club. "Jay's amps were behind me so I just plugged into his stuff and changed all his settings. He was pretty pissed."
"Jay got onstage and announced to everyone that he wanted to look for 'that Earthmen guy' for fucking with his amp," says Luis Padilla, the group's guitarist, nursing a Miller Lite at Tempe's Time Out Lounge.
"He wanted to fight," Rousseau jokes. "Actually, I think I almost did get in a fight with someone from that crowd."
A local pool league has just cleared out of Time Out, and the small gang of metalheads dialing up Slayer and Maiden on the jukebox has vanished, leaving us in relative peace to discuss the band's new self-titled album, released on CD in late June, and now available on vinyl from FDH Records. The band will celebrate the LP's release with a free show on August 7 at the Yucca Tap Room in Tempe.
Earthmen and Strangers is the latest in a long line of projects from Rousseau, a Yuma native who learned about punk rock and skateboarding from friends like Padilla, Joe Mathis (bass), and Lenny DeLeon (drums). "It's weird," he says. "They introduced me to stuff like the hardcore stuff like the Circle Jerks and Black Flag, and now I'm always showing them stuff."
The group would rent out VFW halls and put on shows or bypass the venue option altogether and host gigs in the desert with a borrowed generator. Influenced by Lookout Records, Rip Off Records, Rocket from the Crypt, and copies of Maximum Rock'N'Roll, they would contact touring bands and offer them shows between Phoenix and Southern California. Padilla fondly remembers setting up a show for seminal punk band Dillinger Four. "We played it out in the desert," he says. "And somehow ended up wasted and searching for chupacabras at the Mexican border."
The ragtag band cultivated their growing love of music by skipping school to drive to Tempe, where they would make day trips to visit Eastside Records. Rousseau got into '90s garage stuff, then started The Wongs, a garage-punk band whose manic live set earned them a spot on the Rip Off Records roster. His burgeoning love of garage rock led him to Memphis in 1997, inspired by garage legends the Oblivians. He met another Oblivians protégé, Jay "Reatard" Lindsey, and the two began working on songs on a four-track recorder while Rousseau used his FedEx job to fly between Tennessee and Arizona.
When The Reatards dissolved, Rousseau turned his attention to other projects, like Tokyo Electron, a straight-ahead garage-rock outfit, and he began exploring synth-punk and ambient Krautrock with projects like Digital Leather, a project he started with Shawn Foree (who has continued Digital Leather as a solo endeavor), and Destruction Unit, which started as a solo project but included Jay Reatard and Lost Sounds member Alicja Trout on the record Death to the Old Flesh. It was with these endeavors that the groundwork for Earthmen & Strangers began to form, with the concepts of trance-like rhythm and melodic composition sharing equal footing with "three-chord shit," as Rousseau puts it.
Padilla, Mathis, and DeLeon had all played in various combinations of Rousseau's projects, as well as bands like the Moodspoons and The Simians, so the group of old friends made perfect sense as he put the act together. Their first show, opening for Jay Reatard at Hollywood Alley, made perfectly clear that the group was composed of different ingredients from his previous projects.
"I wanted the band to be more poppy," Rousseau says. "More '80s, not New Wave, really, [but] still kinda punk but more influenced by stuff like The Church, Psychedelic Furs, and The Vapors."
The band's first show kicked off a busy year, one that saw it tour to Memphis to play Eric Oblivian's Gonerfest, play scattered dates around the West Coast with Jay Reatard, and play local shows with the Black Lips, Nobunny, and King Khan & the Shrines. Rousseau also organized the Sundown Showdown festival, an event at the Yucca Tap Room and Palo Verde Lounge that brought together local and touring acts for three nights of garage rock, power-pop, post punk, blues, and New Wave. The series featured acts like Kill Me Tomorrow, Turpentine Brothers, Becky Lee, and Ryan Pits & the Boy Toys.
The band finally hunkered down at Tempe in early spring to crank out its debut record. The album is dynamic, taut, and direct. Recorded live by William McDaniel and the band, it's the sleekest, cleanest work Rousseau and company have put out.
Tracks like "Naked to the Stars" are propelled by the tense interplay between Mathis' melodic, New Order-esque bass work and DeLeon's unrelenting drumming. Two covers reflect Rousseau's creative history: "Photo Lie," written by Shawn Foree, is the record's most carefree moment, a three-minute power-pop single flanked by stately, reverb-bliss guitars. "You Fell In," penned by Jay Reatard, flirts with shoegaze, with Rousseau and Padilla's guitars venturing into space-rock territory. The album has a mystic, psychedelic edge, best reflected by its epic closer, "Desert Snow," featuring a monumental guitar freak-out over a hypnotic Krautrock beat on loan from Can or Kraftwerk.
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For all of what the record is, it's what it isn't that's most surprising. With many of his peers gaining press approval and blog credibility for their lo-fi, trashed sensibility, one might expect Rousseau to keep hocking the scuzzy garage rock he's excelled at making for years.
"I've always done music for myself, always played what I want to play," Rousseau says. "I'm not trying to catch a wave." Padilla elaborates, "You take a risk when you play exactly what you want to play."
But the gamble seems to have paid off. The group plans on touring in support of the new album and has a single due in the fall from Jay Reatard's newly resurrected Shattered Records, with distribution handled by indie-heavyweight Matador Records. The band will again trek to Memphis for Gonerfest, where Rousseau is set to play a rare set with The Reatards.
Rousseau shrugs at the idea of greater success, simply content to record and play the music he loves. "We've never asked to do anything," he says, with a sidewise grin. "People ask us. They want us to do a record, we'll do a record; they want us to play a show, we'll play a show. I mean, I'm not getting rich off this stuff, so I do whatever the hell I want."