Courtesy of Big Hassle PRThe Icarus Line are into drugs, which you might have realized from the myriad references on their galvanizing yawp of scuzzy Stooges-influenced rock Penance Soiree, over which the British press has worked itself into a lather. Or maybe you could tell from everything written about the LA band on Buddyhead.com, the site co-founded by the band's guitarist Aaron North, which has a record-label division that released the band's previous album, Mono. Or maybe you just know because you've heard about their reputation for being wild, crazy and destructive. But you for sure know when you pull from your bag a copy of Penance Soiree and sleepy singer Joe Cardamone lights up.
"What, you got some cocaine on there or something?" he asks excitedly, pointing to the CD cover. Confused—he's serious?—you take a closer look. The CD must have been rubbing against something because the jewel case is scratched up. It hardly looks like cocaine, but then, when you do coke, you tend to see it everywhere.
For one brief immutable moment, the Icarus Line finally seem like the band you were expecting, but this is only one moment in the midst of a long, confusing, contradictory mindfuck of a day.
They've been on this tour for about a week and a half; they roll into Manhattan just time for sound check. Drummer Jeff "the Captain" Watson, who's fond of kissing girls on the hand, sits behind his kit on an empty stage in the near-empty Knitting Factory, happily pounding the shit out of his drums. "Beat for the lady?" he asks when you walk into the darkened club. He's gregarious, almost hyper, a jarring contrast to the rest of the band, who—today—are an exceedingly low-energy foursome who shlump onto the stage looking like they just woke up. (Which, says their tour manager, they did.) Cardamone hums a serpentine melody into the mic, peering at you from behind drapes of long hair when he thinks you aren't looking. Bored, North plays about as much as he has to and then sits down on his amp, politely waiting to be excused; bassist Don Devore and guitarist Alvin DeGuzman are equally phlegmatic. When sound check is over, the group disperses, but Cardamone hangs back, clutching his cell and sucking on a throat lozenge. He's just killing time, waiting for a call, so he'll go outside and talk to you while he smokes, but first he has to get rid of this lozenge. Anyone seen a trash can? He looks around before going up to the bar to ask the bartender where he might find a trash can. Even you would have spit it on the floor by now, and all this genuine courtesy is a bit tough to swallow when you consider what the Icarus Line—just the name alone—has come to mean.
A recent conversation with a member of jangly pop band the Shins: "People think we're these bookish nerds who share poetry in our off time, but we toured with that band the Icarus Line,and we kept up with them every step of the fucking way."
The Icarus Line—who spray-paint other bands' tour buses and start fights and break the law—are a sort of shorthand for all that is confrontational, rebellious and destructive in rock & roll right now, largely thanks to a show they played at the Hard Rock Caf in Austin during South by Southwest three years ago. Shit was all fucked-up, and they were getting angry, which they often do, so Cardamone, who adds that he doesn't actually take part in the mayhem—he just ringleads, he says—suggested they tear the place apart. North, the only member of the group who doesn't drink or smoke or do drugs, saw a beautiful guitar in a glass display and decided he wanted to play it. He got as far as breaking the case and trying to plug the guitar in, but then all hell kind of broke loose—in front of a bunch of music reporters—and thus was born the story of the wild and crazy band who "liberated" Stevie Ray Vaughn's guitar. Even though the band didn't know it was Stevie Ray's guitar at the time. That part is usually left out. But I was there that night, and it seemed less wild and crazy than stupid and scary—destructive in a very rote, punk-by-numbers kind of way. The room suddenly felt unsafe, and everyone was running everywhere all at once, and my idea of a good time doesn't involve getting trampled by a security guard having a 'roid rage because some destructive little dipshit provoked him.
Of course, provocation is all relative.
North, who doesn't drink partly because his mom is manic-depressive and he was told at an early age he has a chemical makeup similar to hers, sits on the tour bus, pushing a plastic spoon through a pint of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia.
"I'm fucking poor as shit, and the most valuable thing that I own in my entire life is my equipment," he says. "I have a car that's probably worth $1,500, maybe. All my amps alone are probably worth $3,000, and my pedal board is worth at least $1,000. If some idiot kid decides to throw beer all over my fucking pedals, I'm not going to stand there—I'm going to kick his ass. Not because I'm a tough guy or anything, just because it's not fucking cool."
And there is the Icarus Line's justification for hooliganism, except, they'll admit, for what they do to keep themselves entertained on tour. But North, who at one time wanted to be a rock journalist, is still concerned about misconceptions.
First: despite the overwhelming popularity of Buddyhead.com, which reports 9.5 million hits a day, which he and Travis Keller started because they were tired of being "censored" in their respective writing and photography careers, he does not feel like a success in any way.
"If I were successful, I'd be able to pay my bills," he says flatly.
Second: "People think we think we're badasses. I don't think I'm a badass," he says. "I'm a little dude. I'm five-seven. We're not trying to pretend we're tough guys. We don't think we're tough. We don't think we're crazy. It bums me out if people think we think we're nuts because we don't—but it's this vicious circle.
"We're just trying to play a show, and some fucking dude comes up to the stage and wants to fuck with us to see if we're as badass as we think we are, so he'll pour beer all over my pedals, so I have to kick him in the face to get him off my shit. And then it's like, 'See, see what they did? They're dicks, they're assholes, fuck those guys.'"
The Icarus Line's official press bio by Buddyhead.com's Keller: "BE WARNED: the Icarus line are able to meet any audience on its own terms, no matter what charming devilish bullshit the crowd might think up. They'd like to fuck you up and blow you to the back of the room, all while doing their street-strutting Jaggerisms. Members of the band often enter the audience to see exactly what's what, and even from the stage, their piercing-red smeared eyes reach out searchingly through the onlookers, sweeping the joint and singling out hecklers. Hey, there, you in the crowd . . . this is your stage as well as theirs, and if you can take it away from them . . . well, fuck, buddy, you're welcome to it! But good luck because the kings of the motherfucking mountain must maintain the pace, as well as the authority, and few can. In this sense, the Icarus Line are of the rarest kind. They have won the stage, and nothing but the force of their own presence entitles them to it. This world-traveling act is wide open. Do your worst, mate, falsify the Icarus Line! It's your night, pal! 'Man, I could get up there and cut that shit.' Well, here's your chance . . . but there's no takers. People stare and gawk, and at most crowd the front of the stage, even though it's danger in the front row. This ain't like watching monkeys take shits at the zoo, kids, and these aren't caged animals. Approach at your own risk, for there is always the chance of having a limb or an organ picked at in the shuffle of it all. Yeah, it's safe to say that this band will scare the shit out of your mom."
By the time the Icarus Line take the stage at the Knitting Factory later that night, the room is filled with sweaty bodies. The band isn't sporting the matching black shirts and red ties they used to wear, but they're a little more pulled-together than earlier in the afternoon. Cardamone's eyes—flat, blank, unflinching—are smeared with red eye shadow. He slithers like Iggy and shakes his hips like Morrison; in between songs, when the audience claps, he absent-mindedly claps, too. North has a thick band of black makeup over his eyes, making him look like a bandit or a refugee. With Devore and DeGuzman, he thrashes around the stage enough to distract you from Cardamone, who doesn't.
The sound—like on the album—is elephantine and psychedelic. The intensity supersaturates it. You can't really make out Cardamone's lyrics—most of which are about drugs and love, but not in the old peacenik way—but his reedy upper-register howling—a little bit angry, a little bit frail, a little bit strung-out—says enough. This is something with heart, something with meaning, which comes as a surprise given the bands' allegiance to drugs famous for sapping meaning, motivation and soul.
As the Icarus Line winds up their set, North gets frustrated with sound problems. He hangs over his amp—on the face, he's painted, "punk is dead"—trying to fix something in the back, playing all the while, his legs dangling in front of the amp. Finally, he lifts his guitar in the air and runs, jamming it as hard as he can into the wall. It breaks, but it doesn't break right, so he smashes it into the ground repeatedly until it splinters.
Pardon me, but what the fuck?What about all that stuff he said about his equipment being his only possession and blah, blah, blah?
"The neck was breaking," he says to you later. "I was just giving it a proper burial."
A record review of the (International) Noise Conspiracy'sYour Choice Live Series that Cardamone wrote on Buddyhead.com: "There is nothing remotely dangerous or revolutionary about this band or its music. Just 'cos you buy the Fender twin and rock the threads don't make you the real deal. Never a sense that the car could swerve out of control and wreak [sic], never a sense that any member of this band has experienced suffering for art. And you have to suffer for art. It's the truth."
Seven years ago the car did swerve out of control, taking the life of Tim Childs, 17-year-old drummer of the Kanker Sores, which was the band Cardamone, DeGuzman and North were in before they morphed into the Icarus Line.
"It was really sad, obviously," says North. "It was horrible. It felt, in a weird way, like all of us died, too. The band was what we did, who we were, and to have that taken away from us suddenly—we felt like we had to start a new band right away or we'd be dead, too."
"Meatmaker" from Penance Soiree is an odd little industrial gutter squall with an insistent hammering beat and paranoid lyrics about voices that talk about choking you in your sleep. It's something of a cautionary tale about someone who falls in love with speed, or, says Cardamone, "It's about anyone who falls in love with anything that gets on top of them and takes away who they used to be."
But doesn't Cardamone, clutching his phone, waiting for a call, ever worry about losing himself?
"I have very strong will," he says. "At least I like to think that."
He looks out into the street.
"On tour, the less of a conscience you have, the more happiness you can have. The more open you are to making yourself happy, the easier happiness is to obtain."
Later that night at the after party at the Beauty Bar: there is a group of five or six fashionable young things who cluster into a bathroom stall and then spill out, vacant-eyed and numb-nosed, again and again, before returning to their perch, less than 10 feet away from the bathroom. One grips her nose, holds her nostril for a second with the pad of her acrylic-nailed thumb. Apparently, there's no lock on the bathroom because bar patrons keep opening the door and then, embarrassed, shutting it quickly. One of the youths is a conspicuous member of a famous New York City band.
Same shit, different coast.
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North, who sits in a booth on the other side of the bar, says he doesn't mind being the one who doesn't partake.
"I'm not anyone's dad," he says. "I don't give a shit what anyone else does. Even if I wasn't in a band with people who do it all the time, I'm from Hollywood. Everyone I know is fucking doing blow. Everyone my age is always drinking. You can't escape it. But it doesn't bother me."
Cardamone isn't inside the Beauty Bar, turning up instead about half a block outside the club, sitting on the sidewalk, talking to some friends. As he waves goodbye to you, you notice that, for the first time today, he has a relaxed, genial look on his face. He looks content. He looks happy.
The Icarus Line perform with Battles and Evaporators at Chain Reaction, 1652 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 635-6067; www.allages.com. Sun., 7:30 p.m. $8. All ages.