Music News

Lost at Scene

There wasn't a cloud in the sky as the twin-engine Lockheed Electra took off from Lae, New Guinea. It was July 2, 1937, and although international relations were tense, World War II was still many months away. The only enemy the little plane had was the Pacific Ocean itself, vast and unforgiving. The trek started unremarkably, but within hours, dark storm clouds had begun to congeal above the aircraft. Rain drenched it as it fought for altitude and foundered off course. And then the Electra vanished.

There are many theories floating around about what happened to the plane's navigator, Fred Noonan, and its heroic pilot, Amelia Earhart. Some say their craft simply crashed into the ocean and sank, leaving no survivors. Others contend that the two adventurers were washed up on the tiny island of Nikumaroro and lived there until their deaths from exposure and hunger. One of the wildest explanations, though, insists that Earhart was a spy for Franklin Roosevelt, and that her daring flight around the world was just a cover for a reconnaissance mission over the Japanese-held Marshall Islands. After spending WWII imprisoned in Japan, she returned to America and assumed the identity of Irene Bolam, a housewife in New Jersey, where she kept her secret until her death in 1982.

Ashish Vyas, bassist of the California group GoGoGo Airheart, is no stranger to either history or conspiracy. A phone call to his San Diego home -- ostensibly to talk about his band -- quickly morphs into a meandering rant on such topics as John Kerry's past as a member of the secret society Skull & Bones and the American government's roots in the Bavarian Illuminati. "I got a degree in biology when I was in college, but that was more for my dad," he says. "I always wanted to study history. I always loved that."

Of course, the talk eventually turns to music, but even then, Vyas approaches the subject with the zeal of an archaeologist. He tells how, when GoGoGo Airheart played a show with Fugazi in England a few years ago, he had an opportunity to sit down with the venerable group's singer/guitarist Ian Mackaye and shoot the shit. Vyas immediately started picking his brain about HR, leader of the legendary Bad Brains, and what he was really like back in the day. From there, Vyas begins analyzing the various epochs of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band before settling into a dialogue on the aesthetic viability of the double LP in the 1970s. At least once or twice per sentence, he punctuates his speech with a jumbled, enthusiastic "YouknowwhatImean?"

"Classic rock is my first love," he admits proudly. "I'm a geek that way."

The bassist's passion for music history should come as no surprise to those who listen to his band. Since its formation in 1996, GoGoGo Airheart has ruthlessly pillaged the corpse of popular culture, stripping bones long thought bare, nourishing itself on the more esoteric appendages of rock 'n' roll, kraut rock, Afro-beat, dub, pop, funk and post-punk.

That last genre, however, is the one with which Airheart is most closely aligned. A lot of hyperbole has been circulated about how post-punk took the vicious ethos of punk rock and intellectualized it, but listen to most of the young groups of that era and you'll realize that they were actually trying to play punk rock . . . and failing. They didn't even have the modicum of talent and toughness it took to bang out a Ramones song, and the result was a twisted, mutated spasm of rhythm and noise. And therein lies its genius: Post-punk was institutionalized amateurism, gloriously intimate, sensitive and yet abrasive, made by kids who didn't even know the rules they were obliterating.

Of course, the heavy hitters of the post-punk movement clearly knew what they were doing -- This Heat and Public Image Ltd., for instance, or Pere Ubu and Talking Heads -- but their influence only ushered more clangor and confusion onto the scene. That the plastic, New Wave pop of the 1980s sprouted from this uncultivated soil is mind-boggling. Just as ironic, though, is the fact that some of the hottest, most hyped bands of today, from Hot Hot Heat to the Rapture, are offering no more than a slick, sexed-up simulacrum of that coarse and disjointed post-punk sound.

"So many of my friends' bands right now are on major labels and getting fat deals," says Vyas. "It seems like, right now, popular music has kind of changed a little bit. There are a lot of people who are getting successful and also writing good music. I think the stuff that the Rapture is doing and the stuff that we're doing -- it's coming from the same scene. We're all on the same team."

More than just teammates, the members of the Rapture -- by far the most successful act of the current post-punk revival -- are old friends of Vyas and crew. Although synonymous with its new home base of Brooklyn, the Rapture is originally from San Diego and was clearly inspired by its neighbors GoGoGo Airheart. "The funny thing is, a lot of those bands being touted as being from Brooklyn, they all have people from California in them," Vyas notes. "The Rapture, !!!, the Young People, Liars. Granted, the catalyst might be Brooklyn itself, but much of the roots of that stuff is here."

Not to say that Vyas is bitter or jealous about his friends joining the rock elite -- quite the opposite. "Those guys are going to maintain as long as they keep writing good music. In the end, it's the music, not the scene, per se, that's important," he says. "In many ways, I want to cash in, too, and get some dollars to invest in this thing and keep it going, but in reality, this is an underground, independent band."

So independent, in fact, that GoGoGo Airheart's first recorded documents were hand-packaged cassettes put together by Vyas and Michael Vermillion, the group's singer/guitarist and one other constant member throughout many lineup changes over the years. Since those early days, Airheart has released nine singles and full-lengths on half a dozen indie imprints, starting with 1997's Gogogo Airheart. The disc -- recently reissued on the band's current label, GSL, owned by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, of the Mars Volta, and Sonny Kay, formerly of Boulder's own Angel Hair and the legendary VSS -- is a tweaked, kinky tangle of sound. Bass lines thrum convulsively while keyboards wheeze like broken respirators; Vermillion is a particle physicist speaking in tongues and baptizing his guitar in a fiery lake of subatomic static. Shards of pop are thrust into rubbery slabs of dub at random angles. The shit is all over the place. Whereas most of the hipsters taking cues from GoGoGo Airheart fixate on one slim facet of the post-punk spectrum, Vyas is quick to point out just how broad a musical palette his group draws from.

"There's been 25 years of music since Second Edition," he says, citing Public Image Ltd.'s 1979 opus, basically the bible of nü-post-punk. "And there was 60 years of pop music before it. I was just listening to some crazy Benny Goodman stuff, a live show from 1939 at Carnegie Hall with Gene Krupa on the drums. It was fucking insanity. Both Mike and myself, our first love is music. When it comes to music, it's not rock; it's not reggae; it's not pop. It's music. I'm Indian, so I'm into Indian music, and we listen to a lot of African music. We like everything from the Swell Maps to Aphex Twin to the Grateful Dead. The list goes on and on."

The Grateful Dead? Sounds like a stretch. And yet, GoGoGo Airheart -- as much as it gets lumped in with all of today's '80s fetishists -- shares a deep spiritual affinity with the decade of acid rock and flower power.

"During that time," Vyas explains, "it seems like the music world and the artistic community was very pivotal on a social level, even a political level. Everything was just being questioned at that time. When you have a bunch of young people in an industrial society who are talking about moving into the woods and starting communes, it's a different, innocent kind of world order that's being talked about. Things kind of changed in the '70s and the '80s. It became more of just a business, you know? The movements behind those styles have all been fads. Everything's been co-opted by business.

"People think the '60s were all this hippie-dippy shit," he adds sagely, "but love is way better than fucking hate."

Speaking of which, love -- along with most of the other ephemera associated with pop music -- is splashed all over the group's last release, 2002's Exitheuxa. With a lineup completed by Jay Hough on drums and onetime Denverite Ben White on guitar (both since departed from the band), the disc is a full-on pop album, complete with fractured love songs and hummably sweet melodies. Of course, this kind of pop is carved with the diamond-sharp, double-edged hooks of early Ultravox and Roxy Music and sports bizarre nods to the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. Vyas and company's most varied and yet coherent album to date, Exitheuxa was a bit of a breakthrough, with abrupt upheavals in mood and texture that exhilarate instead of jar.

"Yeah, our last record was kind of a quote-unquote pop record," Vyas confirms and then laughs. "But now we're getting back to the underground. As if we ever left."

With a new, streamlined roll call comprising Vyas, Vermillion and original drummer Andy Robillard, GoGoGo Airheart has been working since last summer on its new, as-yet-untitled album, due out this fall. Produced in part by Rocket From the Crypt/Hot Snakes leader John Reis, it's going to be, Vyas claims, "a transition record." A transition into what is anybody's guess -- all the bassist can say is that it'll have "a totally different vibe" and be "short and sweet, like, 35 minutes. When you look at all the classic records from the last half of the '60s, they were all about that long." Rest assured, though, that the new GoGoGo Airheart album will -- like the ones that preceded it -- set the standard against which the rest of the world's post-punk pretenders must be measured.

"There are so many other bands that are rocking that are influenced by the same kind of stuff as we are," he says in defense of the scene his band helped found. "They're making a mark, too. True, the Rapture may be a focal point of what's going on, but where those guys have gone on to the next level, we're still trying to figure our shit out."

So honestly, Vyas doesn't have the slightest bad taste in his mouth when it comes to being outshone and outsold by his legion of protgs?

"Dude, we did it first," he confesses at last, finally showing a crack in his easygoing modesty. "It's crazy, 'cause so many of these popular bands have either been directly in contact with us or have heard of us, and I definitely feel like they've been influenced by us. I mean, of course, we didn't really invent anything; the shit was done first decades ago. But I feel that what we're doing is still ahead of the pack.

"Sometimes," he concludes, "the leaders have to take the fall so that the minions behind them can kind of take over."

And so, just like the star-crossed aviatrix Amelia Earhart, GoGoGo Airheart is a daring pioneer lost somewhere in the dark waters of enigma and myth, perhaps never to adorn the cover of Spin or get name-dropped on The O.C. Fuck it. Some mysteries are better left unsolved.

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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller