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Night Songs

Dark industrial chicks aren't sexy. Dark industrial chicks are erotic. Pierced tongues, ash mascara, dead-rose bouquets hanging like crucifixes above draped bed frames speckled with candle wax. Such women give me shivers. They're so . . . nocturnal. Seething, spitting and genuflecting to the heavens onstage during a recent show at Boston's, November 17's lead singer Trevor Askew, 28, looks like a guy who gets a lot of industrial chicks. He has a Genghis Khan ponytail and Charlie Manson eyes. Shirtless, sweaty and tattooed, wearing black fatigue pants and combat boots, Askew perches atop an amp stack and glowers down at the crowd like a gargoyle. To his left are bassist Damon, 27, in full-body tribal paint, and guitarists Chris Cannella and Mark Keltner, both 25, who look like they played "Tough Goths 3 and 4" in one of the Crow movies. Drummer Jason Kowalski, also 25, is behind, wearing headphones to feed his head with looped DAT beats.

N17 kick-starts "Kontrol," the second song on the band's first album, Trust No One, which was nationally released May 27. A synthesizer sequence flares and strafes like B-movie laser fire. Guitar distortion and drums hit with visceral, piston force. "Fucked life dominated by control!" Askew sings, howling with such guttural menace the words translate, roughly, to "FURRGHD LUF DAARGH B'CRRUULRRGH!"

A lot of people say N17 sounds a lot like Ministry, which aggravates the Phoenix band to no end. "We are not like Ministry," says Cannella. The number of times an N17 member echoes this declaration in a recent interview (three) is overshadowed only by how many times Askew says he isn't afraid of death (four). But N17's right--sort of. It doesn't sound that much like Ministry. It's just that most bands who play its brand of industrial rock--looped, buzz-saw guitar riffs, ominous synthesizer sequences, sirens, slasher-flick screams, thunderous drumming and werewolf vocals--sound alike on the surface. Ministry's just the best known of the lot; hence the easy, shallow comparison. But Ministry's also getting tired, figuratively and--judging by the industrial demigods' by-the-numbers performance at Mesa Amphitheatre last summer--literally, as well. In contrast, N17 played the same night as Ministry at an after-party, and, in the genre's parlance, ripped shit up. "The kids were doing back flips off the monitors," Askew says. "We had an overwhelming number of people tell us we blew Ministry away that night."

Formed in the summer of 1993 (the band met through a New Times "musicians wanted/available" ad), N17 has understood from day one the importance of theatrics for industrial bands. Lights, costumes, mayhem. For early shows, N17 draped the stage with the black innards of disemboweled videocassettes. For lights, it used a few well-positioned Radio Shack strobes. "Our philosophy has always been to give a kid an arena concert for five bucks," says Kowalski.

Partly as a result of N17's taste for spectacle and relentless street-promoting, partly because the Valley is a proven market for heavy rock, and partly because goth/industrial fans are a bit obsessive by nature, N17 has developed arguably the largest, most rabid following of any local band. Next time you drive I-10 east out of Phoenix at night, check the massive electronic hotel billboard near the Warner exit. Every three cycles, a series of messages touting room features and rates is interrupted by N17's logo, clearly visible in changing colors for about eight seconds. The band pleads innocence. "We had nothing to do with it," says Cannella. "Our fans are crazy, and they just do crazy things." Things like the N17 tattoos and, gasp, scarifications visible on some fans at shows (try picturing some sorority babe with the Refreshments logo branded on her stomach). "I don't feel it's necessary," Askew says of the body modification, "but it's certainly flattering." Keltner disagrees: "Oh, come on. If someone wants something on their body, I'll be happy to write my name on their butt. Jesus. Some people should just buy a tee shirt."

One N17 fan infused the term "diehard" with new meaning during the band's showcase spot at this year's Foundation Forum, the metal-and-industrial-music conference held every spring in Los Angeles. N17 played a Saturday-night show in Hollywood at the Dragonflye, and during its set, one fan in the pit crashed to the floor and had to be revived by paramedics after his heart stopped. Keltner waves off the incident. "He fell, he hit his head, he flatlined, they brought him back, he's fine now, that's it." Well, not quite--the guy spent 50 hours in ICU, then had to catch a Greyhound back to Phoenix because he missed his ride. Askew says he paid the fan a bedside visit to drop off a get-well note and bus fare, and two nurses asked if he knew how to remove the man's Prince Albert (penis ring). Evidently, they wanted to insert a catheter. Askew, a professional body-piercer, declined. "They didn't have the right equipment. I told them to just go around it."

 

We'll just let that mental image dangle for a moment before we take out four popular misconceptions about N17. One: The band is named after the Greek terrorist organization Epanastatiki Organosi 17 Noemvriou (the Revolutionary Organization of 17 November). In fact, says Damon, the band is named after the same event in Greek history as the terrorist group, not the terrorist group itself. "It's a subtle distinction, but an important one."

To explain--on November 17, 1973, university students at Athens Polytechnic barricaded themselves inside a campus building to protest their country's military dictatorship. Soon after they set up a pirate radio station and started broadcasting antigovernment tirades, leaders sent in tanks and troops to kill them. "It was sort of Greece's Tiananmen Square," says Damon. Two years later, a CIA official in Greece was shot and killed. N17--the terrorist cell, not the band--claimed responsibility (the Marxist-Leninist group is fiercely nationalist and maintains the U.S. government not only propped up the junta government, but continues to secretly pull Greece's political strings). N17 has claimed 25 murders since. Its targets are usually American military personnel, conservative Greek politicians and business leaders. Just last week, three N17 assassins gunned down the son of a Greek shipping magnate. "We prefer to focus on the original act of political rebellion," says Damon, "not the terrorism that followed."

Misconception two: N17 is a straight-edge band. Some of the band members drink, and some of them smoke cigarettes. Keltner does neither, but, Cannella says, "There is no larger repository of Mountain Dew and Twinkies."

Three: N17 is on crystal meth. "I have chicks come up to me all the time and ask, 'Hey, man, you must like to go fast--do you wanna speed?' But we have no time for that . . . we've seen what it does to bands," says Askew. "I do take a couple spoonfuls of honey before I go on," a trick the singer says he learned from his high school wrestling coach.

Four: As a band, N17 worships the big 'S.' In a bush-league version of the venue-barrings currently hampering (and hyping) Marilyn Manson's national tour, city officials in Kingman canceled an N17 homeless benefit concert there two years ago after a local business owner and devout Baptist saw the band members setting up and told the chief of police they looked like drug users and devil worshipers ("Satan, Get Thee Out of Kingman," January 12, 1995). Trust No One does contain several oblique anti-Christian lyrics and samples, but Askew says the band's against any form of organized religion with a doctrine, "whether it's born-again Christianity or Satanism.

"I was born into the Southern Baptist faith, then converted to Catholicism when I was 9 years old," the singer says. "So I was taught to strictly believe in one thing, then, when I was still a kid, I was told, 'Everything you've learned is not true. You're supposed to believe this now.' I was confused, so I started to decipher what I believe in and what I don't, and I found that organized, rigid thinking, in any form, is not for me."

Keltner had a similar experience: "I went to a Catholic school for four years, and they taught us that the individual is the most precious thing on the planet, yet we had this strict dress code that made everyone look like they were cut from the same mold. It was total hypocrisy. Now, I think organized religion is more or less a pyramid scheme, because someone at the top's always getting rich, and it isn't God."

N17 isn't rich, either, although it is one of the few Valley bands to grasp the concept of a "merch booth." Most local groups are on the top of their game if they have one tee-shirt design. N17 offers a line of four, just like a national band on tour. Think big, get big is the band's attitude. When Askew talks about packing Mesa Amphitheatre, it's in terms of "when," not "if."

After comparing record-deal offers from several indies--including local heavyweight Retrograde Records, which launched Chronic Future--N17 signed with Chicago-based SlipDisc Records in March. Last month, it spent several days at a studio housed in a bomb shelter on a 1,700-acre pecan ranch in Tornillo, Texas. But it wasn't recording a new album--just remixing its 1995 self-release, Trust No One, for national distribution as its SlipDisc debut. Band members say newer material is more intricate, but they stand behind Trust No One as a first album that trades complexity for raw power, like Bleach (Nirvana), Kill 'em All (Metallica) and Opiate (Tool), all of which sold hugely after the bands broke on their second or third albums. "We believe this album will do what it needs to, and that people will come back to it, because, eventually, people will want anything by N17," says Askew. "Phoenix is just stage one of liftoff."

 

Right after N17 played its first show about four years ago at the Nile Theater, the members asked venue owner Corey Adams to pay them $50. "He laughed in our face," says Damon. "Like, 'Hah, hah, hah, hah, hah!'" A May 24 all-ages N17 show drew more than 500 paid admissions. Presumably, Corey's not laughing anymore.

Asked who they sound like if not Ministry, the band members settle on a combination of Tool and Marilyn Manson. Maybe a little White Zombie, maybe a little Nine Inch Nails. Radio people lapped up the band's sound (and image) at this year's Gavin convention in New Orleans. N17 played a show on a packed steamboat called the Creole Queen. "The booze was free, so everyone in the crowd was nice and buzzed," says Askew. The next issue of Gavin's trade magazine featured two bands on the cover: N17 and Cheap Trick. Askew grins like the Joker. "I don't know what to think of that omen."

--David Holthouse


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