w/ The Locust, Arab on Radar, Lightning Bolt, Blood Brothers, Get Hustle
Sat August 3
The more mainstream punk homogenizes, the more underground punk splits into demented fragments. For every pre-packaged act that keeps every chord in its place, there's a more interesting ugly kid brother running around, noisy innards hanging out for those who don't want their ruckus so cleaned up. It's these confrontational, artistically arching acts--cult icons such as Melt Banana, U.S. Maple, and Zeni Geva, together with newer acts like Wolf Eyes, Chromatics, and Pink & Brown--that keep the concept of punk from narrowing into the same doofus attitude we see plastered all over TV.
The more experimental the act, though, the more difficult it is to get shows, press, or promotion--so while 100 kids in a Yahoo! discussion group think Band X rules, Band X still has to toil away in obscurity until word of mouth spreads wide enough. Luckily, there are indie labels such as Bulb, GSL, Three.One.G, Troubleman Unlimited, Load, and Skin Graft working to promote the avant side of punk to wider audiences.
This summer, Skin Graft (known for its combination of oddball comics and even odder releases by innovative bands like Cheer-Accident and Ruins) and Load (known for its excellent loud, scrappy duos that often hit the stage in costume) worked on the national Oops! tour, an event Load's Ben McOsker calls "part of a vibrant community that stresses an over-the-top presentation, insane originality, and a willingness to take it on the road."
The lineup (which pulls from multiple labels) changes from city to city, with the same three headliners: Lightning Bolt, Arab on Radar, and the Locust. The Locust strike with shrill, insectlike vocals driven through sci-fi grindcore in venomous, minute-long songs with titles like, "Gluing Carpet to Your Genitals Does Not Make You a Cantaloupe." Arab on Radar share the Locust's socially sarcastic streak, and their spazzcore punk abrasions are equally, artfully violent. Lightning Bolt are a Providence, RI, drums/bass duo who skew their vocals and sear through noise-damaged metal. Locust bassist Justin Pearson jokes that between all three bands, the tour is "a sucker punch to mainstream music."
The list of Oops! openers rotates between cities, including bands like the Flying Luttenbachers, Quintron, Erase Errata, and the Rah Brahs. In Portland, the holy epileptic trio is lined up with amazing, arty hardcore addicts the Blood Brothers (who are on the Oops! lineup for six shows), and Get Hustle. Jordan Blilie, one of the Blood Brothers' volatile musical mouthpieces, emphasizes the importance of punk experiments, saying, "I think it's important within any genre not to let it go stale or stagnant, because that's what kills whatever spirit was there to begin with."
On their own, any two of these acts would be worth the admission price alone, but the fact that a bunch of them are playing together is enough to put those who love panicked punk in a state of pure bliss. "I'm glad that someone had the guts to do something as crazy as this," says the Locust's Pearson of the Oops! shows. "Maybe it sounds silly, but to have a six-week tour of five pretty fucked-up bands every single night, and be successful, is great. Honestly, I don't know how you can market most of the bands on this tour on a mainstream scale, and it's cool that it's kinda being thrown out there for people to deal with."
Oops! didn't just arrive here out of thin air. The idea for these shows originated with Skin Graft owner Mark Fischer, who launched the first Oops! show in 1994 at a now-defunct Chicago club called the Lounge Ax. He started the one-day festivals to "unite some of the most exciting no-wave/experimental/performance damaged /far-left-of-center rock bands of the day under one roof," Fischer writes on Skin Graft's website. "A chief point of the Oops! manifesto was a hearty disregard for the growing trend of said music at the expense of 'fun.'"
After the initial show and a brief tour through the Midwest, Oops! settled into being an annual Chicago event that only left the city in short jaunts. "The theater stuff and audience participation was a big part of the original Oops! shows," says Fischer. "It was almost like an installation in a club--there would be things happening all over the place. Never a dull moment. It was a way over-the-top version of the Our Gang/Little Rascals shows. We retired the name in 1998, after a show we put on for a German TV program. It wasn't fun anymore, and I wasn't happy with that show."
Luckily, the tour didn't stay in retirement, although the focus is now more on the bands rather than on outside theatrics. Brian Peterson, who runs the Skin Graft operations at its original Chicago base, brought the beast back to life this year. "It seems like people are finding out about [Skin Graft] more and more," Peterson says of the timing for the tour. "And there is an amazing amount of kids these days who are really into searching out challenging music. They want to think, but still have fun--our label supports that. Skin Graft is so lowbrow it's highbrow or maybe the other way around. I can't keep it straight," he quips.
While Load's McOsker is in charge of promoting Oops!, Peterson did all the booking. He picked bands that "challenge perceptions of what music is and what it's become. A lot of the bands are exploring new sounds and ideas." He also voices his disgust for what passes in the general public as innovative music, noting, "I remember being excited growing up and [having] those life-changing moments when you're a kid and you stumble upon a new band that really makes you question the way music is played. For me, it was bands like Einstürzende Neubauten, Bad Brains, Renaldo and the Load, Jesus Lizard, Prince, Jesus and Mary Chain, etc. Kids need a swift kick in the pants."
The Locust's Pearson echoes that statement, adding, "There are people who are bogged down with mainstream art and music, and hopefully seeing bands like Arab on Radar and Lightning Bolt can make them think, 'Oh shit, I can go out and perform and do my weird thing and feel comfortable and be successful and have a good time and be creative.'"
So far, McOsker says response to the Oops! tour has been fairly encouraging, and the shows have been pretty insane. "Audiences have been psyched," he says. "People are dancing, walking around in bunny outfits, going to shows naked, and doing stuff outside the typical studded-leather-jacket-and-Mohawk tradition." With or without the genitals and stuffed animals, Oops! is helping to bust punk open once again, and hopefully its colorful entrails will encourage more freaks to smash up guitars around the country.