The Anarchist Song Book
It is 3:58 p.m. on a spitefully hot, humid Saturday. And B L A C K I E, a local musician and growing force in the nation's indie scene, is getting ready to perform. It'll be his first show in Houston since he returned from a successful tour earlier this summer that took him through Europe and Canada. He's eager to start. And probably just as eager to get inside. The sun has hidden among the rain clouds for portions of the last eight days, but it's flexing hard now, pressing its thumb down on everyone's forehead. The heat is almost visibly soaking into the thick tuft of hair on his head as he wheels his speakers from his car to the venue.
B L A C K I E (complete with stylized, all-caps, spaces-between-the-letters name) is a noise artist. His music is a variant of a combination of punk rock and hyper-aggressive rap. It is kinetic energy actualized and then verbalized. Loudly. He literally brings his own sound system to shows now because he's grown tired of venues turning down the volume while he performs; they're afraid he'll blow their woofers out.
Last year, The New York Times referred to him as "a one-man noise ordinance violation." When he raps or yells or even talks, it sounds as if his words are being dragged through gravel. His voice is just naturally large. Still, for the racket he is capable of making onstage, he is noticeably quiet off. In conversation, he initiates few to zero chains of dialogue; not to talk about his budding music career, not to talk about his infant son and certainly not to talk about the temperature of the day relative to his cranium.
Today B L A C K I E is playing as part of Countercrawl, an every-three-months event that tries to bring together all the arts of the counterculture. Fundamentally, the gathering is meant to champion independent art and independent music, but philosophically it's meant to champion independent thought. B L A C K I E as an act couldn't be more appropriate.
He has spent the last few years accidentally growing a passionate following within Houston's music community, earning a reputation as a manic body singularly driven by achieving what he refers to as "total freedom," the ability to think and act outside of external influence. More and more, his songs have become laced with the free-spirit ideology that now seems to define his existence. He isn't making music to make noise, or even to make money; he's making music to make a point. Ironically, it's starting to get rewarded.
In 2011, he played a show in Austin put on by Matt Sonzala, a music dot-connector who most recently organized all of the hip-hop performances for SXSW 2012 (Kanye, Jay-Z, Wayne, Em and more — basically, every major rap star in the universe). That led to an actual spot at SXSW, which led to shows at the Pop Montreal music festival and the North By Northeast music festival, and the aforementioned European tour. In addition, B L A C K I E recently entered into business with local label Tooth Records, which put out his new album, Gen, an acoustic noise project monumental in its progressivism. Of course, he doesn't talk about any of this.
"If you need to know one thing about B L A C K I E, it's this" says Sonzala, who now operates as B L A C K I E's default manager. "He has to make music. Nothing about anything he does is contrived. It's like, what else could he do? Look at Jimi Hendrix. The guitar was an extension of him. He couldn't ever do anything else. All of the greats, that's how it was. They didn't sit down and try to be stars. They had to get the music out. That's how B L A C K I E is. What else can he do? He has to make music."
The house B L A C K I E is performing in, a cog in Houston's alt community referred to as The Ponderosa, is sectioned off into three separate areas, each serving as a stage for different acts.
B L A C K I E sets up his speakers in the back room. He builds two nearly seven-feet-tall towers. In between them, he hangs an American flag. When he's done, he stands in front of it and waits.
In the front room, a thin man in a muscle shirt is performing. His name is Papaya. During his set he sings in English, Spanish and French, vacillating between vibing out and bouncing around like a ferret. He smiles a lot. The show is energetic and happy and fun. When it's finished, people high-five and shake hands. In the other room, the back room, B L A C K I E simply lingers.
As Papaya breaks down his equipment, B L A C K I E faces towards the speakers and the flag but looks at neither. He is silent. There are two other people in the room, and there's a loose dog roaming around as well, but the world might as well all be invisible.
After the front room has emptied, after it's almost totally noiseless, B L A C K I E lifts his head slightly. He doesn't look to see if anyone is around, he just notices the silence.
He removes his glasses in the least dramatic way possible and sets them down on the floor in between the speakers.
He pulls his shirt off up over his head and sets it on top of the glasses.
Then he kneels down and clicks on his music. And gets loud.
In 2003, B L A C K I E, then known as Michael LaCour, was an average, awkward 16-year-old. He was attending La Porte High School in La Porte doing what awkward 16-year-olds do (skateboarding, hanging out, blah). Toward the end of his sophomore year, though, things changed. He was always a promising student in school, born of a family of smart people. And that year, he got accepted into an esteemed early college admissions program (same as his older sister had).
The plan seemed simple enough, though not necessarily easy: He was to move to Denton, Texas, to finish out his last two years of high school while simultaneously completing his first two years of college at the University of North Texas. He was to live in a dorm on campus with other brainy kids his age who had been accepted into the same program, learning all sorts of life lessons about preparedness and planning. By the end of it, he was to have a strong idea of where his life was headed.
The execution, however, was less than prime.
"I didn't like it," says LaCour. "I knew I didn't like it when I got there. I couldn't find anyone to really hang out with. I wanted to be home. All the kids I hung out with there ended up being kicked out or left. All the kids that stayed were, like, real uptight."
The classes weren't too hard for him. It was the environment that felt wrong. It was too rigid, too structured. LaCour was beginning to develop his own ideals and thoughts, and for the first real time in his life, he felt what he thought it meant to be creatively oppressed.
"It was really tense," remembers LaCour. "If you got in trouble there, they just kicked you out. That was it. Some kids got caught smoking weed and got kicked out the last week of our first year. They didn't get any credit for anything. One of 'em tried to jump out of his window and kill himself. Another kid, when we got to finals, he just started running. Like, he literally tried to run out of Denton. It was super-stressful."
LaCour had seen enough. He didn't return the following year, instead opting to finish high school in La Porte. After he graduated, he left home to attend the University of Texas, a school located in arguably the most liberal and artistically expressive city in the southern United States. When he got there, it felt like the exact same thing. Halfway through his second semester, he simply stopped showing up to class.
"It just always sucked to me," says LaCour. "I felt like, 'I can't meet anybody cool; nothing here is inspiring me.'"
Multiplying his grievances with college's stiffness was a developing trauma of greater and greater worry at home.
In the '90s, LaCour's father had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Around the time LaCour left for Austin, doctors ran out of new medicines for his father to try. His condition worsened quickly and he began to wither away. LaCour came back mad and scared and sad.
"I was watching him decay right in front of me," says LaCour.
When his father passed, LaCour was rocked. He attempted to kill himself.
"The thing with that is," says LaCour, "when people try to kill themselves, they're just looking for something. It's like being an alcoholic or drug addict. They're looking for something. I was just looking for something."
He found music.
By chance, LaCour met up in Austin with a kid he'd known from La Porte. In addition to having the same regional heritage, the other kid, J.T. Jerkins, had lost his father as well. They formed a band, J.T. on the drums and LaCour as the front man (they actually courted another kid whose dad had died as well, but that particular threesome never came to fruition). Things were appropriately dark.
"Back then it was real aggressive," says LaCour of the music. "It was super-personal. Super-depressed, angry isolation shit. We didn't care. We were just trying to make the heaviest sound we could."
Even B L A C K I E's earliest music is tinged with the antiestablishmentarianism that he's feted for now, but back then things were less about that and more about releasing the rage he had in his bones.
They performed guerrilla shows, renting a generator and showing up in skate parks and parking lots and just playing as deafeningly and forcefully as they could. They experienced success locally, but when LaCour mentioned that he wanted to fully pursue music, J.T. hedged.
Eventually, he went back to school. LaCour was left alone again.
In 1988, John Carpenter directed a movie called They Live. It's a sci-fi flick that, among other things, serves as a commentary on American greed and ragged consumerism. It stars Rowdy Roddy Piper (for real) and sees him, through the use of magic sunglasses he finds, identify and out a race of wealthy aliens on Earth (for real).
Naturally, B L A C K I E enjoyed it.
Maybe five years ago he would've thought it was charming and opaquely humorous. Today, though, he sees its core values as profound.
"After he gets the glasses," says B L A C K I E, discussing They Live's protagonist, "he can see all these hidden messages in society. Like, that we need to obey and consume. That's what I see too when I look around. So the music, that's what it's about now. It's got more focus. Now my focus is on total freedom."
He uses the term "now" to reference the past. Because everything is different today.
After J.T. left for school, B L A C K I E continued on. He adopted the name B L A C K I E, "all caps with spaces," as his own. (He and J.T. had operated under a different name, one he won't even say "because it's so wack.") He was now without a drummer, so he began really working on beats, creating them on an old AKAI MPC500, basically a box slightly bigger than a Game Boy, with gray squares on it that you tap to create noise. He avoided using computers to make sounds, a practice he still follows today, instead recording straight into a tape deck. He developed his own sound, a brand of noise music too hip-hop to be strictly noise and too noisy to be strictly hip-hop. People clamored for it.
"He's a genius," says Fernando "Papaya" Alejandro, a longtime friend and former drummer of Cop Warmth, a band that grew its own popularity around the same time as B L A C K I E. "I look up to what he does and respect it so much. It's so real. I listened to one of his first albums for an entire year. It changed my life. He had one song that said, 'I ain't waiting on you slow niggas. I'ma achieve something, then reach for some mo', nigga.' When I heard it I was like, 'Whoa.' I went and quit my job right after that so I could get serious about music."
Early on, B L A C K I E's music functioned as catharsis; it served him directly and others incidentally. But as he grew into his music persona, as the passing of his father was dulled by time, as he began to gather the bits of freedom in performing music that he had never found in school, and, eventually, after the birth of his own son, his anger shifted over to focus. And it's paying dividends.
He toured nearly all of June, playing 23 shows through France and Canada in 30 days. (The best: There's a video on YouTube of him performing at a festival in Paris while two kids, one probably seven and the other probably five, dance and scream and laugh.) And when he returned home, it was to an equally auspicious setting: A proper record label ready to try and make him viable.
"We really wanted to focus on gaining national attention for B L A C K I E," says Bubba Hightower, who helps run Tooth Records. "He's amazing."
The obvious question, then: Can B L A C K I E — or any comparable musician, really — be popular enough with this sort of sound that he needn't do anything else?
There are acts that have made the sound marketable nationally, most notably Sacramento's Death Grips, who have basically homogenized the sound B L A C K I E invented. But such acts are rare.
The answer, predictably, doesn't matter.
"That'd be great," says B L A C K I E, his baritone voice somehow sounding heavier than normal, "but it's whatever. I plan on doing this regardless of money."
Two seconds ago, B L A C K I E wasn't performing. Now he is. And it's hard to tell that it's even the same person, or if the person making all of the noise is even a person at all and not some sort of megaspeaker with eyeballs. The metamorphosis happened instantaneously.
He didn't introduce himself. He didn't check to see if people were ready. He didn't petition the girls hula-hooping outside to come in and watch. He just went.
As soon as it was silent long enough, he turned the speakers on. And as soon as the speakers began to vibrate, the instant sound came out, he was at full froth. It was like he'd been hit with a defibrillator. Everything was quiet, and now everything is mayhem.
People outside hear the ruckus immediately and come charging in. After a few moments, the room is full of people watching B L A C K I E thrash about.
Maybe 30 seconds into his set, the dog, previously just wandering around the house being a happy chillbro, goes loopy. He runs in and snaps ahold of B L A C K I E's leg. B L A C K I E is so full of fury that he doesn't even flinch. The dog lets go and bites at B L A C K I E's other leg. He gets ahold of it, and still nothing. B L A C K I E rolls around on the floor oblivious. The dog might as well be trying to bite a tornado or a ball of light or a laser or a tornado made of light and lasers. He snaps at a few others who are moshing and they all immediately backtrack, trying to avoid his jaws. One guy offers his hand to the dog's nostrils so he can smell it, a peace offering and gesture of friendship. It seems like as good a metaphor as any to highlight the difference between B L A C K I E and other human beings. That nobody was around wasn't a good enough reason not to start performing, and that a dog was trying to chew through his tibia wasn't a good enough reason to stop.
For the next 20 minutes, B L A C K I E is the apex of the universe, tearing through songs from the last three years of his life.
His lyrics deal with a range of topics, working their way from discrimination to sexuality to fascism. Most of the time, everything is so loud that it's impossible to hear what's being said, but each of his songs has an opening so unique and bright that his fans are able to immediately know what is going on.
"My Window," for example, which most recently appeared on 2009's Spred Luv and has become a live-show staple, begins with 30 seconds of brooding, high-pitched tings. "Warchild," one of the key tracks from 2011's True Spirit And Not Giving A Fuck, opens with a two-second recording of children counting off a marching cadence. "Home Town Blues," from 2012's Gen, starts with pecks at an out-of-tune piano. A stream of sound that might otherwise blend into TV static becomes earmarked by these tiny chunks of almost benevolently creative production.
Every so often the music drops out entirely, allowing B L A C K I E's enormous howl to punch through. Generally, it occurs as the songs transition from one to the next, but it can also occur as part of an actual song. During the bits of silence, he still raps/yells. When "Warchild" goes blank at the 0:19 mark, it's at the very moment he delivers the song's thesis statement ("I don't care about America, nigga, it kills its youth"). The pattern repeats itself throughout his show, each song making its statement.
B L A C K I E finishes with a song called "The Kid That Tried To Cut Himself In Half," which ends with 30 or so seconds of him shouting, "Lines, they fall on me everywhere, I will divide, lines!" before eventually relenting, "I will...become...lines."
When he's finished, he says his name, thanks people for watching, then walks out. It takes him several minutes to return to homeostasis. He drinks a little water, then poses for a picture. He doesn't really remember the dog, but enough people tell him about it that he won't forget. He disassembles his sound system, loads it into his car and drives home.
Six days later he's on the phone answering questions about his performance. There are tiny questions ("Seriously, you didn't feel that dog?"; "Which parts of the show do you remember?"), but they all lead to one: What's the point of behaving in the manner that you do at shows, and how is your aggression in performance or song any less vitriolic than America's lies that you're fighting?
There's a slight pause. Then there's a lucid answer.
"Being real loud and saying what I want to say," says B L A C K I E, "projecting it like that, I hope it will allow the audience to project their sense of freedom like I am."
"I'm all about total freedom and not giving a fuck. I can't think about anything else."
"That's all I want."
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