EARTH ARMY Recalls the Golden Age of Free-Form Houston Punk
EARTH ARMY at the Westheimer Street Festival, undated
Photos & other artwork courtesy of EARTH ARMY/Spike Jacobs
As the 1980s waned, the steadfast idea of "genre" loosened its grip on American underground music. No doubt some bands like Butthole Surfers had always remained unruly. By and large, though, punk, ska, hardcore, rockabilly and industrial music thrived in subcultures dedicated to preserving authenticity.
This meant a commitment to distinct, unwavering styles, but as college, community and pirate radio proved, more and more listeners craved not stasis and cookie-cutter templates but a wider field of hybrid pleasures. Mainstream-leaning rompers Fishbone and Red Hot Chili Peppers rollicked local venues like Fitzgerald's, while regional rulebreakers the Flaming Lips, Pain Teens, Bad Mutha Goose and Hickoids held forth at clubs like the Axiom. Though almost lost in the recesses of history, locals EARTH ARMY also forged a singularly impure sound during those salad days. In fact, their five-song 7" single from 1989, aptly titled "Experiment!" highlighted a restless vision of music without bounds.
On their 1991 Stravinsky Rides Again LP, songs like "Godzilla '91" effortlessly melded the pithy politics of Consolidated with the Beastie Boys' flavorful hip-hop ploys while also honoring Blue Öster Cult's original, by no means an easy task. In contrast, "Crack Cocaine," from the single, paid witness to the rampant drug scourge inundating communities by unleashing stripped-down, lo-fi punk that could have been on Dischord earlier in the decade (think the Untouchables and Red C).
Rocks Off's David Ensminger caught up with members Alex Keller, Rashaan Linson and Spike Jacobs, to explore the music, memories and places that offered such fecund possibility.
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Rocks Off: The band seemed to happen during an interesting transition in Houston (and national) punk: The old hardcore bands had waned, and a new crop of mutant, hybrid genre bands like yourself emerged. What inspired you from the older set like Really Red, and what inspired you from the new, like Blind Ignorents and Pain Teens? Alex Keller: From the old Houston HC stuff, I think we took a sense of humor that wasn't always present in hardcore...combined with the anti-authority and anti-abuse stance from something like Really Red or AK-47. It seemed like a lot of HC bands that had political agendas were just going through the motions, but Houston bands were deeply outraged at injustice.
From the newer stuff, definitely you'd see our willingness to take risks with music, improvise and just make noise influenced by bands like Pain Teens and (personal favorite) Rusted Shut. From my perspective, the main influence on EARTH ARMY's inclination toward experimentation, and Houston becoming so much more of an industrial noise town in general, was [KPFT's] Funhouse.
Everyone in the HC scene used to listen to Funhouse and tape it regularly, and eventually they moved the show from hardcore to experimental, and as a result you had all these hardcore kids becoming introduced to tape collage and musique concrète stuff. The end result today is the harsh noise scene in Houston, which has spread across the country.
Images from EARTH ARMY's first show, August/September 1988
Rashaan Linson: We were pretty good friends with Peter from BI and Bliss from Pain Teens. They were definitely the first wave of hybrid punk bands in Houston, which we were able to feed off and feedback from in the scene. I remember watching the Pain Teens perform with their S&M/Industrial/Gothic presence, and it just reinforced the idea for us to push the boundaries of punk by such things as incorporating the "Godzilla Deth" guitar and using vibrators on our instruments onstage.
Pete was like an older brother, so I would hang with him in his studio while he was working on some hip-hop production. He was the first real production-savvy musician I knew. That was my first in-studio experience and kind of opened up that whole side of making music. On the older set locally, I wasn't too inspired. Definitely it was more of the national punk scene like Dischord Records and SST artists...plus psychedelic music (Hendrix and Pink Floyd) and industrial artists (Swans, Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV) that inspired me creatively.
Spike Jacobs: Really Red, the Clash, Bad Brains, Ramones, etc...were all huge influences on me personally, but I can't really say to an extreme amount musically. On the national scale, I was probably influenced the most by the primal double drums, variety and performance of the Butthole Surfers. Locally, my biggest influence at the time was probably the Bay of Pigs/Bayou Pigs.
I had an appreciation for the Blind Ignorants and Pain Teens, but musically I think we were all trying to do our own thing, and similarities that might have arose stem more from us (EARTH ARMY, Pain Teens, Blind Ignorents, etc...) reacting to the transition that you mention -- punk, hardcore, metal, experimental -- was all gonna come together somehow (a.k.a. grunge). I think the other guys were closer than me to those two bands, so their take might be a little different.
Did being from Humble provide a kind of outsider sensibility and attitude, perhaps less concern for urban cool? Spike: As Rashaan and Alex will be pretty quick to tell you, I was the only member from the Humble area, and actually more Aldine. I handled most of the business-type stuff, so I got a P.O. Box for us where I worked at the time, the Humble post office. Rashaan grew up in the Montrose, while Alex and Lewis both lived in the Bellaire/University area.
I first met Alex a year or two before E.A., and I think he was Eisenhower High School-area then. Still, I don't think any of us were too concerned for "urban cool." Maybe I was just too socially unconscious when it came to "cliques" and "in crowds" to realize there was such a thing. I'm a few years older than the other guys, and when I was in high school, punk was still considered pretty uncool.
I know Pete from Blind Ignorents described you as a heavy-metal Sonic Youth; no doubt you seemed akin to bands on SST, Trance Syndicate and the like, but did you feel connected to a larger music scene in the region and country? Alex: Yeah, I think so...maybe not enough. I think our influences may have pulled us in a lot of directions, so it's hard to say exactly who else we might have felt really close to.
Spike: I was happy to be part of the Houston and the Texas scene, but I genuinely thought we were doing something different and totally unique, with the exception of some of our improv jams were very reminiscent of a live Butthole Surfers show. I like Pete's description: I think Sonic Youth and heavy metal were both big influences to Rashaan.
We got to open up for a Pain Teens record release show (Born In Blood, maybe?) with the Evil Mothers from San Antonio, and that was great. Even though we sounded a lot more like those bands than other Houston bands, I felt just as much kinship with very dissimilar Houston groups such as Sprawl.
Interview continues on the next page.
A small profile, and your ads, were featured in MaximumRocknRoll. Did you share the political sympathies of the staff and bands, a kind of anarcho-left outlook? Alex: MRR's hardline ideology was controversial, and I don't know that any of us toed the line thoroughly -- we were probably all too anti-authority to do so. I think that the four of us shared specific revulsion toward the callousness of war, environmental horror and media's dumbing down of everything, but also in general embraced the idea that we could be independent thinkers and artists, performing and releasing music discussing our passions without the support of anyone else.
Spike: MaximumRocknRoll was the "WorldWideWeb" for the 1980s punk, HC punk and underground music scene. They had cheap ads and consisted largely of reader submissions, so it was too good to pass up. Politically I definitely leaned left, but as far as anarchy, I don't think I've ever had enough faith in human nature to be that optimistic.
I'm not even sure most at MRR were, although maybe the folks at Profane Existence [were]. Honestly, for all our political leanings, at least mine, it's surprising how little we discussed politics between ourselves as a band. I was always anti-nationalism (although ironically proud to be a Texan), and I never realized anyone else in the band shared much of this sentiment until Alex wrote the framework to "Better off Dead."
He wrote the music for it, as well as most of the chorus and some of the lyrics. Then I added quite a bit lyrically and recorded the vocals. To me, that song summed up about everything we stood for as a band politically, that and maybe "Let the People Decide" on the It Came From... cassette, which was written after the Tiananmen Square stand-off.
Rashaan Hinson showing off his "Godzilla Deth" guitar
Environmentalism (including playing Houston's first Earth Day), as well as "the futility of war and brainwashing powers of TV" were themes underscored in the music. What shaped such ideology -- the music and fanzine scene, local activism, a rebel teacher? Alex: I grew up reading stuff like Vonnegut and dystopian science fiction, was very influenced by independent thinkers like Thoreau, and was very politically involved and aware from a young age.
Spike: My ideals were probably mostly shaped by Dave Yammer of the Untalented, Bayou Pigs, etc.; Chuck Roast and Austin Caustic and the Funhouse Show; and Ronnie Gates from Cabaret Voltaire. I'm sure MaximumRocknRoll, the Dead Kennedys, the Clash and Really Red all influenced me as well, but Dave Yammer and Chuck Roast turned me on to all of that, so they should probably get first credit.
For years, integrated black/white bands were semi-common in Houston, including the Usuals, SNOT, the Kravens and more, but the late 1980s were also known for a rise in right-wing youth, too. Did the band encounter bigotry or stereotyping? Alex: Rashaan had a reputation for being a sweet guy, but one who would take no shit, and that probably insulated him from a lot of potential conflicts. I remember running into all sorts of issues with skinhead assholes outside shows with Rashaan, and without him just as often. I don't recall his ethnicity ever being an issue at one of our shows. That said, the white guy is never the one who does.
Rashaan: We were a "strange band" to start off. Before people could comment on our racial makeup, the first thing they would say is, "Why the fuck is your drummer playing standing up?!" We were not a band for conventional thinkers.
As you said already, the Houston rock scene was already fairly diverse (for example, King's X, who was present for that first Earth Day concert), so a biracial band wasn't really breaking new ground, but it did add to us being more abstract/less conventional. In the punk rock scene itself, there were Nazi skinheads and Hitler youth, but we really never had any issues at shows with them. They had their own scene and weren't really crossed over to ours. Closest thing I experienced was getting in a fight with a local skin outside of a Glenn Danzig show...
Spike: And don't forget the Plug Uglies! I personally did not encounter much, but I was kind of on the outside compared to the other guys, who lived in the Inner Loop. As Rashaan pointed out to me in a subsequent conversation, I was "out of the loop" figuratively and literally.
I will say that the name EARTH ARMY arose from my unity/one-world viewpoint as I saw the rising tide of right-wing and nationalism in the Houston scene, and this is even before I met Rashaan, and I was actually a little surprised I didn't encounter more opposition. I think this was partially because we were appreciated musically but not taken serious politically.
Apart from the 7" single and Stravinsky Rides Again, much of your material was released on tape, which like LPs has become rather in vogue again. Does that surprise you? Did you feel like part of a cassette revolution? Spike: I guess I'm still out of it because that's the first I've heard of cassettes coming back into vogue. I wish 'It Came From...EARTH ARMY" would have been released on vinyl, as I consider that to be some of our best work. I still have the final mix we recorded with Scott Ayres. I just got rid of my working cassette decks. Maybe I'll find a nice reel-to-reel one day.
Alex: I'm not surprised, but I'm still somewhat active in the experimental scene, which has been pretty steadily releasing cassettes. I suspect that the real tactile nature of a cassette or LP release is something that is valued by the listener in a way that CDs are not, since they can be easily bumped off by anyone with a burner.
Of all places, you recorded in Baytown, not exactly a rock and roll hub. How did that happen? Spike: I met Richard Cagle through an ad in Public News, something like "Saturn Studios, $25 an hr." When Rashaan and I were just a duo, we drove out there to record our demo. He had given the engineer job to someone else, but he walked in during the one take "Death to Mediocracy" and was blown away by the wall of insane noise coming from us, just two skinny punk kids.
That started a relationship that lasted throughout the band. He let us make copies of our cassettes straight from the master mixes at his studios; he gave us time in trade for us putting "Siren Records" on the split cassette New and Improved and the "Experiment!" 7 inch, and I painted a sign for him once in trade for studio time. Just a great guy/place that supported us, and local music, and was willing to work with us anyway he could.
Did working with Scott Ayers [Pain Teens, Truth Decay, Anarchitex] let you explore the music in new or different ways? Spike: For me, not really. Don't get me wrong; he did an amazing job: I think I was using a 7-piece roto-tom set at that point plus snare, base drum and cymbals, and getting the drum sound as good or better in his living room than we had in the studio was probably hell.
But generally speaking, he let us have free rein to do what we wanted in our way, with maybe a suggestion here or there, which was pretty much what we'd always had at Saturn in Baytown and later with Pete Reardon. Scott was (is?) a fantastic guitar player, of course. His dive-bombing metal solos are about the only ones comparable to what Rashaan was doing also and what Alex did later on Stravinsky...Maybe Rashaan and Alex received some advice or instruction during the recording I wasn't privy to?
Alex: We talked a lot about the kind of experimentation that Scott did in the studio. I don't remember if we explored much of it in the studio, but he definitely had a lot of interesting ideas. His methodology was more about building from a loop, and we were more about capturing a performance.
Like MyDolls, you were played on John Peel's radio show. For you, does that represent a kind of triumph, a swan song or at least pride, luck and joy? Alex: It's very flattering. Peel is definitely an icon for me; for him to have just heard that record is pretty amazing.
Spike: Undoubtedly. That was an honor beyond honors. He must have got that in the Rockpile magazine package we gave 110 out of the first 300 albums to. A few reviews, including MRR and Public News, thought Stravinsky...was too self-indulgent and overproduced, but getting on the Peel new music hour vindicated for me that it was more of a pinnacle where several creative individuals in one band, as well as some outstanding sound engineers, all had a tremendous amount of input in one project and put the time and money into it that it deserved.
Another big milestone from the Rockpile thing was we were above Sonic Youth on a few college radio stations' playlists. That was HUGE at the time, at least to me. Unfortunately, Alex was ready to do his own thing, and Lewis and Rashaan had already went away to college, so that was pretty much the end of EARTH ARMY. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Jennifer Azure, for stepping in on bass and allowing us to finish Stravinsky and play a few more shows. Then Nirvana broke and of course everything changed. We might have done pretty good in the Grunge era, but who's to say?
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