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You don't expect to get an actual conversation out of the Locust, perhaps the strangest band to ever sneak within striking distance of the average music consumer. If its phone manner is anything like its music, you figure there's going to be some surreal shtick involved, that you'll be addressed as "Captain Sphincter" with bombastic mock-deference while a bloodcurdling squall fills the background. Or that your questions will be answered with non sequiturs concerning gaydar, Nazis, and "an ambidextrous hunch spawning an armless puppet child." You expect to be called a "lowly primate" and to be instructed to detonate your testicles.
But a funny thing happens once I get Locust guitarist/co-vocalist Bobby Bray on the phone: He makes sense. Aside from an unusual objectivity toward his own species -- "Let me maneuver my human body to a better location," he says above nearby traffic noises -- Bray seems no more delusional than the next guy who lives in San Diego by choice. He speaks English, not binary code, and answers questions directly, without an insectlike trill or even a hint of sarcasm. Well I'll be.
Here he is defending the Locust's move to Anti, an arm of the über-punk umbrella label Epitaph, for the band's new release, Plague Soundscapes: "I think that people who try to stay as DIY as possible are definitely trying to combat this evil entity of corporations controlling art and music. So there's definitely a role for that. I just think that there needs to be more than just that."
That's the very picture of restraint for a member of a band that's endured heckling, slashed tires, and even death threats for daring to wriggle above the underground, first touring with the late major-label group At the Drive-In, and now as labelmates to platinum punks like Rancid and Pennywise.
"Go tweak yourselves to death, you rich, big-headed rock stars," suggests a recent piece of hate mail. "You are nothing but a bunch of image-concerned ass-wipes. By signing to Epitaph, you'll just end up destroying the Locust. Not that I have a problem with that."
While it's true that Epitaph is the punk scene's leviathan, swallowing practically every band that reaches a critical mass of popularity, the Locust is not just another punk group with its eyes on the Warped Tour's prize. Though it grew out of the aggressive and exclusive hardcore noise scene, this band transcends its peers, creating music that's harsh and grating, but also catchy, surprisingly artful, and, because it's all done with a kitschy wink, perhaps even accessible to a wider audience.
You'll get into some nasty record-store brawls claiming that "hardcore is dead." The author of the only authoritative account of the form, Steven Blush, in his American Hardcore: A Tribal History, placed the demise of the movement around 1986, provoking an online debate that may never end. It's safer and more accurate to say that, like Starbucks and the Holy Spirit, hardcore is everywhere.
The movement, which Blush calls "an infectious blend of ultra-fast music, thought-provoking lyrics, and fuck-you attitude," boiled down the original NYC and U.K. punk to bedrock, starting (er, arguably!) with Black Flag around 1980. Since then, it has had its way with all manner of metal and hard rock, sent the mosh pit stumbling into mass pop culture, and fractured into innumerable subgenres, one of which, "power-violence," birthed the Locust.
But to anyone acquainted with this extreme-hardcore habitat, the Locust might seem merely cute. Like Crispin Glover hanging out in a biker bar, the band's outlandish approach seems mild when placed next to its meaner, nastier peers': The Locust uses a Moog keyboard instead of perverse homemade electronics; its members come off as skinny art-punks rather than meaty metalheads; and they led the trend at the end of the '90s that found hardcore bands ditching the giant-trouser-wearing skater look in favor of color-coordinated getups.
While it may be "cute," there is something unnerving about the Locust, and it certainly isn't its B-movie horror aesthetic; nor is it the band's vocals, performed alternately by Bray, bassist Justin Pearson, and keyboardist Joey Karam, all of whom sound like the same guy getting stuck continually with a firebrand. What's scary is this: Listen to the quartet's splattering, 40-second "songs" enough times and they grab you like pop music, which is one hell of an accomplishment for tracks without melodies -- tracks with names like "Spitting in the Faces of Fools as a Source of Nutrition." The difference, however, between listening to conventional pop and what the Locust does is that instead of hitting "repeat" to hear a melodic hook, you do it to examine some infernal chirping that's been perfectly mingled with pummeling "blast beats." It's not unlike being fascinated by a particularly weird rash.
As otherworldly as all of this sounds, it has very distinct roots. A crucial ingredient in the development of the power-violence genre is the invention of blast beats, the simultaneous thwock of the bass drum and high-hat, followed by the crack of the snare, repeated at an absurd velocity. This unlikely acceleration of traditional hardcore, previously the fastest music on Earth, is partly the legacy of the scanty three-year run of San Diego's Crossed Out, saluted on Plague Soundscapes with a cover of the harrowing "Practiced Hatred."
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