Weird Is the Word

Punk As a Doornail and the strippers and the pizza and the shitstick and the bicycle and the just intonation and the 43-tone octave and, one day, if theyre lucky, the ass kicking

Photo by Jack GouldFirst, Marshal explains how badly he wants someone to kick his ass. Then he'd like to have someone deliver a pizza onstage, and he could give his microphone to the pizza guy while he ate the pizza. Maybe you could hire an escort or two? you suggest. Yeah, says Marshal, yeah! Or midgets? Cary asks. No, midgets are played out, says Marshal, but strippers . . . yeah . . . And then Marshal tells the story of how he almost got to meet Britney Spears. And then Keith talks about how he's replacing his American-flag tie with a clown suit because of Sept. 11, and then Marshal talks about how much fun it is to drive around with a motorcycle helmet on—to roll up on other drivers, flip open your visor, and stare them down—which is an idea he borrowed from Keith.

And then one of the other ambulance drivers—Marshal is an ambulance driver, and you're behind some seedy hotel in Anaheim at midnight with a team of manic 24-hours-on/24-hours-off EMTs, waiting in a cardboard box of a room with a bunch of naked mattresses, lit by a flickering red fluorescent light they call the "porno light," waiting for 911 calls to come in—fires up his strobes and roars off to investigate someone's chest pains.

And then you ask the members of the band Punk As a Doornail whether they got into punk because they were already weird or whether punk music made them weird in the first place. And they're quiet for the first time that night.

"I don't think what we do is that weird," Keith says finally, moments after he'd just explained how he plans to dress up like a clown more often. "We're just like old punk rock before it got defined—before you had to have a guitar and go, 'Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah.' I don't really see what we're doing that's weird."

Okay, maybe "weird" isn't the right word. So Keith builds most of their instruments for them: a skateboard with strings called a skatar; a shitstick, which is, um, a big stick with a bass string on it; a DETOUR sign with fencing-wire strings, since destroyed. That's more creative than weird. And so they've been banned—whether by official edict or by just being too ashamed to ask to play again after pulverizing every mic in the building—from most county venues. That's more . . . unusual. But then you listen to their music—a maybe-brilliantly skewed take on Flipper-style contempt-core with a potent dose of rambling-street-crazy charisma. And you hang out for a night talking about New York no wave and avant-classical composers and 43-tone octaves—and, of course, the strippers and midgets and motorcycle helmets. And then you realize that "weird" is the perfect word. And that this is a good thing.

For about two years and 20 shows, Punk As a Doornail has been, well, Punk As a Doornail, ebbing and flowing through singers who'd call in sick and skatars that couldn't die into this, their most recent and stablest lineup, as well as their most developed—if you want to corral it like that—sound. Before? Singer Marshal Cowley was in the U.S. Navy, where he learned that it really does take two people to turn those keys to launch the nuclear missiles and—perhaps not coincidentally—got real tired of having guns put to his head. Drummer Cary Pealer grew up next to the Agnews, suburban Fullerton's punk royal family, going to school with baby brother (and future member of the Adolescents) Alfie. Skatarist Keith Irish (also bassist for the comparatively more demure rockabilly band the Irish Bros.)was in a Chapman University frat, he says as we drive by a group of confused baby-faced pledges waiting by a pay phone on Glassell Avenue. "It was fun," he chirps. He took choir for one semester. And new guy Jaime Contreras—sometime rapper, sometime shitstickist—couldn't make it tonight. Why?

Illustration by Mark Dancey

Well . . . they volunteer that he's suddenly and mysteriously out of town, something he evidently does on a regular basis. Then they say he's running guns. Then they say he's performing in educational skits at area elementary schools to teach kids not to use drugs or beat their spouses. Then they laugh. And then they tell the story of Contreras' first show, which, you later discover, sounds like a lot of their other shows.

"We're at Koo's," says Keith of the Santa Ana youth spot/arts venue, "and he started wrestling an oil drum . . ."

"And then, right in the middle of the show, he found a broom," says Marshal. "And this show, everything was going bad . . ."

"Naw, it was great!" says Keith.

". . . And no one could hear my vocals. So I got pissed-off and unplugged the mic and sang into an unplugged mic," says Marshal. "Then Jaime's sweeping the floor, and I get handcuffed to a chair, I duct-taped Keith to the skatar . . ."

"This was the show I knocked myself out at, right?" asks Cary.

"Yeah," says Marshal, "yeah, I think so."

"And your hair was all singed?" asks Keith.

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