By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
Zack Wentz was lucky to get the voice he has: deliberate with fatigue, flat as a pane of plastic, a little chipped around the edges, a little thin at its center. We talk today by rotary telephone. It suits him perfectly, subtracts the last shreds of humanizing affect from a voice wired to deliver the kind of disconnected midnight surprise that always kicks off pulp-noir short stories—the kind of voice that never sounds more natural than when it's talking about losing it. And now we're talking about losing it.
"I think everybody has the potential to totally lose it," he says slowly. "It seems like there's some sort of muscle in your brain, with different degrees of elasticity. For some people, maybe it's a little bit weaker. And some people never notice because it's nice and thick."
The best song on his band's last EP—Put the Time Machine In Your Mouth by Kill Me Tomorrow, on GSL—is just Wentz spieling like Joe Gillis dissolving face-down in a swimming pool behind a house just off Sunset Boulevard. Talk and noise, narration by a dead man: "For about . . . three hours . . . they had me soak in some kind of . . . solution . . . the whole time they were . . . uh . . . projecting . . . a sort of . . . animated film on the side of my head . . . annnnnnd . . . they said after that . . . my body would be pretty much ready to make . . . the fucked-up kind of . . . movements . . . it was going to have to make . . . I started to get kinda nervous . . . and then I started to get kinda scared . . . wondering if there was a way . . . I could get out of this."
How's it end? It doesn't, really. It's Thomas Disch's "The Squirrel Cage," except Disch wrote his no-escape Moebius loop with a typewriter and Kill Me Tomorrow wrote it with a Rickenbacker bass, a beat-up mono guitar, a little mixing board, a Radio Shack keyboard, a candy box of effects pedals, a custom-built cocktail drum kit that Wentz plays standing up, a set of triggers built into the drums and a guttering wall of salvaged junk audio. It's a good trick, a trick they're going to turn back on itself: their newest album, The Garbageman and the Prostitute (out any second now on GSL, with accompanying DVD!), is slated to accompany a novel of the same name. This is something they are excited about. The core of Kill Me Tomorrow—bassist K8 Wince and guitarist Dan Wise; someone's been flipping through Horselover Fat's Big Book of Baby Names—cohered in '97, but at some recent point, they got sick of writing songs-qua-songs and started writing songs as stories: plot-character-climax-denouement stories. "We burnt out on the whole sort of . . . '90s emotive approach," Wentz says. "Beaten to death. Straight-up diary reading. It got to the point it wasn't saying anything anymore.'
Wentz's father was a writer, editor, hardcore bibliophile—it's nice that Wentz puts "hardcore" in front of "bibliophile" at least a half hour before he uses it next to "straightedge"—and spacey young Zack grew up in Portland with fingers pulpy from golden-age SF writers, canonical beats, lavishly illustrated occult-phenomena exposes, the whole wide-eyed weirdo library-card package. Honestly, his pubescent reading list probably warped him more than the freshman-year acid that finally atomized his substance-free adolescence: Bradbury, Herbert, Huxley, Calvino, Van Vogt, Dick. He says he's still more into literature than music; these days, he writes what he wants to write, flenses it down to gut and synapse, and then flips on the power strip for the effects processors.
Like Burroughs' cut-ups, we ask?
A pause—he hadn't thought of that. But . . . he does like Skinny Puppy and the Max Headroom show. "Forward-thinking," he says.
Except Kill Me Tomorrow's futuristic shtick bottoms out at their equipment, which in itself is pretty pallidly futuristic—that 808 belongs on the museum shelf next to the C-64 and the 2600. And they're a bass-drums-guitar band, a setup as old as what spoiled no-wavers like Lydia Lunch used to bitch about as "Chuck Berry shit." And the repetitive arrangement under the lyric superstructure easily qualifies as traditionally recognizable songs, even punk songs, since Kill Me Tomorrow ably and seamlessly covers Suicide, nominally a punk band, and—unwittingly, says Wentz, since there's not a neck tattoo or a pompadour among them—even somehow replicates something of the Cramps' creepy outsider-art fetishism, though not a note of their creepy sound. Superficially, it's sort of mundanely—if ambitiously—modern.
But then you let the repetition work itself into a trance, and you realize micro-fictions such as "Skin's Getting Weird" and "Put the Time Machine In Your Mouth" are actually something ages more primitive: a sort of post-narcotic, sci-fi, talking blues that—if you were focused through millennia instead of just years—you could almost reduce back to a skin-drum, a clay pot full of peyote nubs and a lot of nights with no sleep. Telling fucked-up stories over a beat that just goes on and on antedates ziggurats—probably agriculture, possibly even loincloths—and Wentz's story-songs melt down to unsolvable Ur-questions of identity and self, life and death, reality and illusion. Because of the way he grew up, he finds it fitting to formalize them through robots and time machines and pharmaceuticals—the dystopian tropes of our times—but it's a solitary sort of sentiment that goes back as far as narrative can go. These stories are old stories. Zack's woozy via-tannoy vocal effects sound more like Dock Boggs than "Doc" Smith, and unprocessed, he's still got that voice: calling from a rotary phone, floating face-down in a swimming-pool, waking you up in the middle of the night, trying to explain how he got there. How would they blurb it on the AMAZING SF cover? The same way they do it on the lyric sheet: "Our hero realizes he no longer has any idea who he is or ever was."