Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

Dark Meat's gonzo good-time skronk

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Performing at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, TX, last March, a dozen or so members of the art-punk ensemble Dark Meat took the stage dressed in outlandish, mismatched thrift-store duds and sporting bizarre face makeup.

The players in this horn-heavy ensemble proceeded to throw small plastic glow sticks and glitter confetti at the crowd, which responded by tossing it back along with rolls of toilet paper liberated from the rest rooms. All the while, the band churned out its gonzo but melodic high-energy skronk, which it describes as “the Stooges meets Crazy Horse with killer Stax/Funeral/Marching band horns, wailing gospel-style female backing vocals, ripping Eddie Hazel guitar leads and Albert Ayler breakdowns.”

That description comes close to capturing what I saw and heard that night. But like some violent but majestic force of nature—a hurricane or a volcanic eruption—it’s really something that has to be experienced to be fully understood.

“I was the least skilled musician in our group when we started, and I thought the best way I could contribute was with these conceptual things that I learned doing performance art and street theatre and things like that,” says Ben Clack, whose role in the group is perhaps best described as “demonic cheerleader.”

“I was really into [non-traditional visual artist] Robert Rauschenberg and the weirdness of that, and I really wanted to take these totally bizarre, confrontational sorts of things and mix them with the fun, party aspect of Parliament-Funkadelic. Plus, people weren’t really doing shows with blowing oil [light shows], and I just wanted to synthesize all of that.”

Though the lineup is always shifting—“Our membership varies from 13 to 23 people, depending on where we are at in the country and how long we are out on tour,” Clack says—Dark Meat essentially started when he moved to Athens in 2004 to attend graduate school at the University of Georgia. There, he reconnected with multi-instrumentalist Jim McHugh, a friend from his teen years in North Carolina.

“I had been a fan of his songwriting for years and I was a visual artist mainly, so I worked visually in collaboration with his music. I wasn’t that into the band he joined, and he wasn’t either, so it was just a weird treading-water feeling. One day, he and I just started goofing around writing some tunes, and then later that night we met up with some friends who are now in our group. We went out into the woods, took a bunch of acid and then watched the Olivia Tremor Control perform. In that moment, we felt so good about the music they were doing and it was so inspiring to us that we wanted to do something that conveyed that feeling to other people—just making music that’s a celebration of the things that we enjoy.”

Unlike Athens’ late, lamented psychedelic-pop heroes the Olivias, Dark Meat had a much unsettling vibe to its sound: This is a band much more inspired by the chaotic noise of the Stooges, the MC5 and the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” than the Beatles, Love or the Beach Boys of “Pet Sounds”—bad-trip psychedelia as opposed to the “journey toward the white light stuff,” if you will.

“I guess that just comes from life experience and the way we chose to express it,” Clack says. “Jim and I for the most part bring the material to the band, and we came out of listening to groups like Void and the Germs, learning to play music off of those very noisy, abrasive hardcore records. From that, in college, we both really got into Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor and all of that. That came out of me going to the library every night and discovering all this [free-form jazz] music. I grew up in the country, as did Jim, so we really didn’t have access to a lot. But we thought there were a lot of similarities [between these sounds] with the anger and expression.

“I guess the idea was that we came through looking at music in a darker way, but not necessarily in a depression. I don’t think there’s really any sadness in our music; it’s all very joyful, except for the idea. There are a lot of things that teeter on the edge with the emotions, and that sort of tension is what we want to create.”

Dark Meat’s debut album, “Universal Indians,” was originally released on the small Orange Twin label in November 2006, in the midst of non-stop touring. Last month, the disc was reissued for wider distribution by New York’s always freak-friendly Vice Records, and the band has launched a 60-date tour to celebrate. But the group is even more excited about returning to the studio for album number two.

“After playing 200 to 300 shows with these guys, the way we operate and work has become pretty refined as far as our musical interactions go,” Clack says. “When we recorded this record, we had only been a group for four or five months, and it was a giant experiment for us to see if we could get the idea down… The next record is going to be much further out.” And you’d better believe that’s saying something.

Dark Meat, Quiet Hooves
Av/Aerie, 2000 W. Fulton
9 p.m. Saturday

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I probably saw the same show in Austin at Vice and originally was lured there out of curiousity to see Jay Reatard but was blown away by Dark Dark Meat. It remined me of the early Athens and Atlanta scene exports that were very much Art school influenced. The better known of these of course made it out (REM, Pylon, B-52s) but there were at least handful more that were active in the Southern Circuit running from the 9:30 club in DC down to Cantrells in Nashville. Vietnam (and no kids not the curent band) The Method Actors, and The Now Explosion all leap to mind. All of these had an intangible aspect that made them a bit more pure.

Dark Dark Meat as mentioned in the original blog post is a band that has to experienced to be appreciated. Much in the same vein as The Polyphonic Spree where you try to describe it to a friend or loved one and it really doesn't sound particularly good. This is also the sort of thing that if it's not clicking either on stage or with the audience could be a disaster.

The beauty of Dark Dark Meat is there a definite feel as there was with their predecessors that this is being done at least for the moment totally for fun and as an artistic endeavor and there is no calculation of commercial success. Bands like this are few and far between so go see them and make sure you bring your friends as you'll find that you won't be able to describe the uniqueness of the show to them.

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on May 22, 2008 2:36 PM.

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