Room 101 Comes Full Circle: 'Order Is Important, and So Is Chaos'
Photos courtesy of Room 101
Roburt Reynolds is a one-man unit steadfastly wielding his punk soapbox against the seemingly Teflon slick world of hegemony and patriarchy. Bareboned and singular, he jams his own kind of 'econo' by mixing brutal speed, tight-wrangled rhythmic combustibility, and lean musical spareness. All wrapped up in easy panache, boy-next-door good looks, and super-intelligence, Room 101 is not for pretenders. He's a straight puncher, fueled by a humanitarian heart. In mid-action gesticulations, his body seems as if red ants are swarming, or electroshock is being applied, or he has a storehouse of Chuck Berry wiggling in his hips.
With a mass of vinyl singles behind him, he is ready to showcase his newest, Vox Humana, which is slightly less incendiary and slightly more shaped by mutant New Wave embellishments, at least on "Boiys." Meanwhile, the venomous "Exterminate Adult Thinking" fuses vintage French electro-punk Metal Urbain ("Panik") with the wonkiness of SST bands like Angst. The Press' David Ensminger hunted Reynolds down in New Orleans (via email) before his anticipated gig at the Summit on Wednesday night.
Houston Press: First, why the one-man band? Immediately, given your politics, I think of Billy Bragg or a stripped-down, hardcore-punk version of Consolidated. Is it about total control of vision? Or the ultimate DIY?
Roburt Reynolds: Strangely, this was never meant to necessarily be a one-man project. I was finishing an entirely different project entitled "The Diagnosis of Sharkula" and wanted to make something completely different. I recorded some songs very quickly that were based on pent-up frustration about different things I witnessed going on around Chicago, while still eyeball-deep in living/teaching/working there. I played the songs with various people/musicians during different sessions but in every setting, even after multiple efforts, for one reason or another, we all went our separate ways.
However, everyone who heard the recorded material really seemed to like it. A friend suggested I play it live, which I thought was a horrible idea. How boring can you get?! One guy onstage?! He shrugged his shoulders and said, "Play a movie." After thinking it over, I decided I would design and make a movie that would correspond with the material, project it in a HUGE format, and basically create an amalgamated version of a conceptual 'Room 101' from George Orwell's 1984.
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It took awhile to coordinate all of this from scratch, but in retrospect, or (in Newspeak for the hipsters) in "vintageland," the project almost seemed to be forming itself to HAVE to be just me. No one else seemed to be able to handle it in one way or another. It's a complicated and disturbing project, but really worth it to perform. I've had plenty of criticisms from so-called purists about what I do and even offers from myriad people to join the project. They have all backed out of joining for one reason or another.
It started with vision and has always been DIY, planned with improvisational room. I never set out to "make it" with Room 101. Then it would just be pretentiousness and an empty egocentric wish to become a drip in the ocean of megalomaniacal faux-artistry that is corporate music culture and all that strives to align with it. Beyond the DIY ethic though, thanks to X-Mist/Beau Travail for stepping up and releasing my latest record in Europe. Much props and respect to them for their hard work and efforts! We still do artwork with X-Actos and glue around here!
I believe we were both raised in the Chicago area during the era of Life Sentence and other iconic bands. I had some culture shock, exiled from rust city bluntness to constant casual vibes, when moving to the Deep South. Did you? If so, in what way?
The second wave of hardcore punk in the late '80s grabbed a hold of me as a preteen and turned me onto the earlier music that had greatly influenced it. Skateboarding culture, punk-rock culture, rap culture, art culture, and youth culture in general turned me toward new experiences with this new cultural lens, one that seemed to encourage people being creative, and doing it on their own.
The Internet didn't exist; people traded unlabeled mixtapes; people went to shows, and continued to create what has now been codified, corporatized and repackaged, to be sold in malls and online shopping carts. I was hanging around the Chicago scene(s) for years, working in printshops and teaching alternative high school for dropouts and overage students. I made the jump to Houston when the teaching laws were changed in 2008. Getting used to the vibe in the Deep South was weird, at first.
My first show in Houston was amazing and was at the now-infamous Dead Baby Distro. That night, I met Ed and Ed Jr. from Verbal Abuse and Vatos Locos, Cop Warmth, The Delta Block, John Reen Davis and Torry from Anarchitex [and] Bob Weber from Really Red, amongst many others. First show, it was incredible. Sewage leak, mud wrestling and bloody tissue paper. Someone got their teeth pushed in after the lights were cut and the crowd went crazy. It was violent and unsavory, exciting, and uninhibited.
When I left that night, there was some girl, passed out cold, halfway underneath my car, like the good witch of Oz or something. When I was finally able to drag her out, she refused all assistance and stumbled away into a ditch, mumbling that I had f***ed up her nap.
It was an interesting adjustment: the pace, the heat and humidity, but especially the fantastic unruliness of some of the shows. When I first saw MDC in Houston, people were stage-diving and swinging from the rafters, moving with total abandon and stuffed into a crowded room. I wish I could say there was not one "cool" person posturing in that room. People were way too busy living fast and having fun — right then! Not reminiscing on some documentary of years passed.
My eyes were like golf balls! Hahaha! When I left Chicago, I had people giving me shit like: "Ya git yer cowboy berts on yit??" I would just tell them: "Don't come here; they don't need you down here."
You lived in Houston, gigged with the likes of MDC, but now live and work in New Orleans. How has the new city and scene reshaped your sense of politics and scene dynamic? For me, NOLA seems very grassroots, DIY, and youthful.
I've had tremendous fortuity in opening for a lot of bands that I've admired over the years. Even here in New Orleans, I was asked to open for the Dex Romweber Duo and last summer for No More Fiction's Downtown Boys show, who have an amazing new record out. New Orleans is a tremendously unique city, and I've been fortunate to travel a lot. I've never been anywhere like New Orleans, and my wife, Xelina and I love it.
My sense of politics is greatly tuned into my daily efforts, teaching high school and working with youth. TV, social media, and politics won't ultimately solve our problems. WE have to solve our problems constantly, at street level. Our kids are used as political tools for fake philanthropic ruse, and in the end, all the promises made by these large corporations into their "education" models and charter board oligarchies are death. Working right there with the kids, day after day, year after year, is the best thing I've ever done. It's a different life from doing music full-time, and I'm lucky to be able to do any of it. The youth are where it is at. It's always been that way.
There are some people in the scene here that are very involved in work of action and outreach. They have [a] Girls Rock Camp every year that people in the New Orleans scene run. It's such a rad program. It provides so much for young girls, transgender and gender nonconforming youth out here. Rock and roll is often such an oppressively patriarchal boys' club. There are some really amazing people in the scene doing good work to serve the people of New Orleans, too, running Community Kitchen, while working jobs, playing music and LIVING! There are plenty of bums, too, but what else is new?
In many ways, New Orleans has to be grassroots, 'cause ain't nobody comin' out here!!! Help ain't comin'. The ambulance ain't comin'. You don't want the cops comin'. You are on your own and that's all. Handle it, and that mentality contains constant manifestations of youth. The scene here is pretty rad, depending on who you ask and what you're willing to do.
Over the years, you've bonded with noted artist Winston Smith, whose work graces Dead Kennedys and Green Day records, as well as yours too. How did this happen?
Yeah, he has a piece on the new record cover, too! It's phenomenally perfect for the record! I was on tour in 2008 and was lucky enough to meet Winston while in San Francisco. We hung out and talked. I explained my entire project being based on George Orwell's 1984 and asked him [namesake of the main character in 1984] to collaborate on my first record. The artwork is always mind blowing! Winston is an incredible guy. I'm super-grateful for his involvement.
The new EP, as reviewers note, seems shaded by an early punk a la 1979, a mutant New Wave/punk hybrid at times, something akin to Dangerhouse, people suggest. Are you getting restless, artistically speaking?
That's a great question. Often, when people are listening to or discussing a new band or record, they make comparisons based on what their personal tastes and biases remind them of subconsciously and then, immediately after that, consciously. I think that is pretty normal. There's nothing new under the sun. As for the comparison, I take it as a huge compliment; I think a lot of those Dangerhouse records sound restless.
1979 America was no utopia. Our whole society is restlessly complacent; we barely know how to impart actual, living change anymore. If the restlessness or urgency in my own material doesn't translate, then I'm doing something spuriously and need to fall back. People have their differing outlooks. Some reviewers have called "Boiys" a “hit,” while it was written, more than anything, to be a song that openly and generally discusses hedonism and vindictive advantage in relationships, amongst all people, from any varying background, being hopefully relatable to all human beings, regardless of identity and without offense. The pronouns are personally interchangeable, depending on how you identify! It's specifically and intentionally ambiguous so that everyone is included. That is restlessly trying to reach everyone through simplicity!
There is an absolute, mindful effort behind Room 101 material that contains songwriting, structure, arrangement and order. However, there is another mindful effort to use familiar art forms in strange arrangements, weird time signatures, poly-rhythmic layers, and off-kilter, experimental and spontaneous tangents that go far beyond bridges, choruses, verses, solos, riffs, or so-called parts. Order is important and so is chaos.
Being a one-man project with no knee cymbals, back-tuba, or washboard buttcheek-horn, I must make a mindful effort to constantly assert new approaches, sounds, concepts and ideas in general. Then I'm back at the beginning of how Room 101 started. “The two-headed snake eats itself,” said Dinalo, “Full circle.”
Room 101 performs Wednesday night alongside Handsomebeast, Phoebe and Jon Black at the Summit, 3536 Navigation Blvd. Doors open at 8 p.m.
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