On a recent Monday night, I'm inside the downtown art collective The Firehouse, where The Complaniacs drummer Matt Spastic lives. The band is auditioning a new bass player in Spastic's bedroom. A few Firehouse regulars poke their heads in, grab beers from the mini-fridge, and watch the bleached blond, tatted-up Spastic go to town on his drums like Animal from The Muppets. I'm the only one wearing earplugs.
Call me a wimp, but I don't know how everybody else's ears aren't bleeding. The first song the band launches into is "Killed by CubScouts," an upbeat and deafening number with speed-building guitar lines. The lyrics, screamed out by guitarist/vocalist Jim Nauseum — who rocks shoulder-length, reddish-brownish hair — are absolutely unapologetic. (The second verse goes like this: "Rock 'n' roll will give you the HEP-C/Then your brain starts to bleed.") The minute-and-a-half song isn't difficult to play, but it's not easy either, especially due to its frantic nature. This new bass guy, named Nathan, who might as well be wearing just underwear because there's barely any seat to his threadbare jeans, nails the tune in the second take. Spastic and Nauseum look at each other and smile. They crack open more Coors Light beer cans.
The Complainiacs' standard operating procedure is to play ear-raping, jet engine-loud punk rock in an F-U style. But more than the music, the band rocks the punk image mold set by groups like the Sex Pistols and Minor Threat, which basically means, "If you don't like us, then leave." And though The Complainiacs have matured just a bit — the band's sole focus used to be to clear any room they played — they still don't really give a shit about what you think. Because, as Spastic puts it, "Disgust isn't such a bad emotion."
For more information on The Complainiacs, check out MySpace.
The Complainiacs have been pissing people off regularly since 2003, when Spastic and Nauseum formed the band while each lived at the old Thought Crime artist collective. "Early on, our goal was to run people out of venues. Be really noisy and write things that people couldn't possibly dance to," says Spastic, who admits that in the early days, the band encouraged hecklers to come to the shows to further pooh-pooh the concert-going experience. But the sonic blitzkrieg yielded my favorite part about the band: odd time signatures. Most of the songs are in 4/4 time, but The Complainiacs sometimes incorporate 3/4 or even 7/4 time into their blistering sound.
Back in Spastic's room, Nathan the bass player is trying his hand at "Etc.," a song with some of these obscure changes and weird repetitions. As I'm listening to the tune, I take note of Spastic's room, a pretty small space that, believe or not, has hosted shows for local and out-of-town bands. The place, to be honest, is an absolute freaking disaster. I've had to compete for sitting space on a couch along with empty cans of Milwaukee's Best, dubbed tapes of The Descendents and Butthole Surfers, and the book Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, which I later discover is the object that's been digging into my back for the past half-hour. I will give Spastic the benefit of the doubt because he's in the process of moving out, but it's basically looked like this every time I've been here.
After only one take of "Etc.," Nathan, who sports his four-string bass ax below the waist, again picks up the music as if he's written the stuff. It's obvious that he's talented enough to be in this band, but I wonder if he has the right type of punkitude to fit in with The Complainiacs. Then, as if he's reading my mind or something, Nathan says, in between drinks from his 40-ounce of Budweiser: "That was fun. Now that I'm getting a buzz, I can get more into the groove." Then he goes on to tell a story about how, during a recent performance at Holgas by his band Rapeworm, he got really drunk, called somebody a faggot on the mic, and fought somebody else in the crowd. Spastic's blue eyes light up and he says, "Well, so far you're fitting right in. We piss people off all of the time."
And it's true. For whatever reason, The Complainiacs know how to push the deepest and most vulnerable buttons within people. There was the time when, after a seven-hour drinking binge, they played a set that apparently didn't even resemble music. When they realized that they were too sauced to play, each band member started kicking and wrecking their gear. Some of the soundman's stuff was ruined in the process.
More recently, a beer bottle-wielding audience member cracked Jon Dissed, the band's bass player of three years, over the skull during a gig at Bruno Mali's, on Seventh Avenue and Osborn Road. Long story short: The Complaniacs knew everybody in the audience, so various friends came to their defense and beat the crap out of the guy. Spastic even got some licks in of his own, hitting the dude in the back of the head "probably 10 times or so" with his drumsticks. Once the battered guy was dragged out of the place, the band — including Dissed with his gaping head wound — finished the set. Spastic says, "When all was said and done, I noticed that my sticks were splattered with blood. I don't know if it was from the perpetrator's head or Jon dripping on them." (Six months later, the band ran into the assaulter, and discovered he's this cool guy named Rocky from local rock group Skinwalkers. They are all now friends.)
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I suspected that all the drama and acting up by concertgoers was because of the attitude of Phoenix audiences, which I think are notoriously sensitive to anything edgy. But apparently, the band works the last nerve of folks in other towns, too. During a show at the Double Down Saloon in Las Vegas, two guys really dug the music, but basically everybody else hated them. At one point, the bartender yelled, "Go back to Phoenix."
Personally, I don't really understand why folks get so aggro. I've heard the band enough times to know that their sound is tight and that they can play the crap out of their instruments. So what if it's loud and sometimes obnoxious? That's part of going to shows, you know? Complaining about the volume would be like going to a football game and telling the people around you to hush up for yelling and clapping. About the varied reactions the band provokes, Spastic says, "I think that if everyone likes you, then you aren't doing your job; not pushing any boundaries. Most people like the same old dribble," he says. "If some people really like what you are doing and some people really hate it, to me that is satisfying. At least they feel something."
After the group runs through one more tune during this initial audition at The Firehouse, they all agree that they need to book a show soon. It looks like Nathan — who is now named Nate Shit — is going to be a good fit, at least in the short-term. I just hope that he is strong enough to absorb a beer bottle blast to the cranium, if it comes to that.