Only rock critics care about deep, defining issues, of course, and nothing ruffles a critic more than to have some smart-ass musician point this out. Elvis Costello's adage, "Writing about music is like dancing to architecture," put an entire generation of scribes on the defensive.
As I dialed a telephone number in Austin, Texas, I was prepared for some wrestling.
Larry Strub, the recipient of my call, yanks bass strings for a notoriously weird band called Ed Hall. The trio is on a bizarre independent label, Trance Syndicate. Journalists probably rank alongside earwigs in Strub's opinion, I figured. I'd spotted an old Flipside interview with Ed Hall in which the members lobbed questions back and forth like so many Nerf balls. The article never did reveal if the band's name refers to the founder of Hallmark Cards, to Billie Holiday's clarinetist, to a policeman on General Hospital or to some inside goof on Led Zeppelin. Apparently, the real Strub was in a pod somewhere, because the creature who answered the telephone thanked me for calling and quickly warmed to the topic at hand.
"I guess we're still part of the underground," he replies to my first question, adding, with a laugh, "like, 'overpublicized underground.' I mean, how many years can you be in the underground, you know?"
I like this guy. He's going to make my job easy. It seems that Ed Hall formed in 1987, emerging out of what has been described as Austin's "wacked-out, art-school-dropout scene." Strub recalls being invited to jam one day with a drummer friend, and then playing the usual drug parties as "a total jam band." He was motivated to write songs after listening to other bands' so-called "songs" and thinking, "This sucks! I can make better stuff in my own bedroom!"
After the usual growing pains and lineup changes (including the dismissal of a lead vocalist who preferred taking his pants off and crawling inside doghouses to singing), Ed Hall's recording career commenced. Strub, guitarist Gary Chester and drummer Kevin Whitley (since replaced by Lyman Hardy) first appeared on an Austin cassette compilation called The Polyp Explodes. This caught the ear of Berkeley, California's Boner Records and led to a pair of albums, 1989's Albert and 1990's Love Poke Here. There was little media consensus regarding the band, but terms like "unhinged," "hallucinogenically abstract," "zany nihilism" and "excellent modern Texan psychosis" located em well to the left of center.
Enter Trance Syndicate, the Austin label founded in 1990 by the Butthole Surfers' drummer, King Coffey. Trance Syndicate specializes in Texas-area bands that make willfully obscure cacophony. Bands such as Coffey's own freaky side project, Drain, deafening punk evangelists Crust, psychedelic rhythm aces Pain Teens and "big ugly rock" mongers Cherubs have all found a home on Trance Syndicate.
Coffey had become a fan of Ed Hall when the group opened the Butthole Surfers' 1991 North American tour. After signing Ed Hall, Coffey sent the band up to Butch Vig's Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, to record its latest album, Gloryhole.
"We actually spent less on it than our second album," says Strub of the late-'91 release. "They know what they're doing [at Smart]. The only thing was, we didn't have enough time to mix--there was this backlog, because Butch Vig was about to do Nirvana in California--so we ended up taking some tracks and remixing them down here. I think it's definitely our best album. Most albums you can pick out one or two [songs] that you wind up not really liking, but on this, I like everything."
Claustrophobes will doubtless contract a bad rash from exposure to Ed Hall, and the tunnel-like Gloryhole in particular. But to those of us with lobes screwed on sideways (and who own a few albums by Butthole Surfers, Melvins and Steel Pole Bath Tub), happiness awaits. Discordant guitar licks flail and flap like sea gulls in a hurricane, although "random" is not part of Chester's repertoire, as his riffage is jazz-tight and cutting. Strub's bass grumble has a kind of gnawing, malevolent pulse, yet it's still a reassuring glow beneath the chaos. Hardy's kit pounding is a delicate ballet between tribal drums and a Victorian dentist's hammers. And then there's the band's fetishistic application of effects for maximum psychological impact. Of a twisted instrumental like "Bernie Sticky," Strub says, "Yeah, that's got some weird sound range in it! You don't know where it's coming from. That's a frightening song, even to me. It's not a happy song."
Vocals? They're shared with demented glee by Strub and Chester, who specialize in shouts, moans, evangelistic rants and just plain demented gobbling--about perversion, mutilation and other fine Texan traditions. (There's also a hilariously horrific "Letter From Ed" to an old flame composing Gloryhole's liner note that expounds on the Ed Hall world view.)
The live show is a logical continuation of this assault. Some observers have called Ed Hall "theatrical." Strub suggests there's much spontaneity afoot. Film projections and lots of frenetic jumping around lend a visual edge to the sonics, and breaks in the action are nonexistent, thanks to tapes that roll between songs (monkey whoops and chants, Manson girls chatting, exotic instruments like the didgeridoo). Intentional multimedia overkill?
Agrees Strub, "Yeah, that's pretty much the way it is now with us. Our sound man is on the search [for tapes] constantly. Also, our film man is pretty damn important. It's a five-man team. And it's different every night--no set lists."
Ed Hall: indie to the core. Although if the Butthole Surfers can ink a deal with the Beatles' old label. . . . Ahem, Larry, what if a man in a suit comes up with some money and wants to sign the band, providing. . . ? Are you a whore for hire?
"Oh, yesss, absolutely!" hisses Strub. "Ah--no fucking way! That's one thing that's cool about King and Trance--he's totally hands-off. If you spend less money on recording, then we get our profits back quicker."
Considering that Ed Hall plans to record its fourth album during one short week prior to hitting the road--the Phoenix show is the first date of the tour--it's safe to say that the band plans to keep a firm hand on the D.I.Y. throttle. To wit: As with the last album, there will be no producer, just an engineer.
"We prefer that over having to contend with that extra ego/speed bump," says Strub. "I can't imagine leaving the room and letting someone else mix your stuff--you have control over it all the way until the very end and then give it up? You're gonna have to live with that record the rest of your life!
"I'm not saying all producers are egomaniacs. But there's an agenda they have, whether they're conscious of it or not, and that's something you have to contend with. You can just talk around and around forever with a producer, whereas with an engineer you can go, 'Why don't you just turn this up a little bit, and we'll see how that sounds?'"
Yeah, I like this guy. He thinks like I do. He even raises the deep, defining issues for me. "There was this article in the weekly paper the other day about how [Austin is] renowned as such a great music town, but not that many bands have become megastars and sold millions of records, but we're right around the corner," Strub says.
"The whole idea of a region 'making it' is stupid! It's band by band! I mean, if a band gets a reputation and then there's a homogeneous bunch of bands, that's pretty suspect to me. There's something fake going on there. Like the Minneapolis thing with Soul Asylum and Hsker D, and in Seattle. The whole idea of, 'Oh, this region must have something in the water!' That's fucking ridiculous!