Photo by James BunoanAs mad, fantastic, conquer-the-world, where's-my-bitches, pass-the-Courvoisier rock & roll superstardom goes, the Pop Narcotic are crapping out. Label deals have collapsed. They made just one album; it was never released, though it's available at www.thepopnarcotic.com. They have no connections and can't get many shows. When they do perform, the Pop Narcotic act like a roach bomb, clearing rooms before the band hits a note. They have no fans—really, no fans. When the waitress at the Sunset Beach grease pit we're lunching at interrupts our chat every three minutes to make sure we're okay, I figure it's probably the most attention they've ever had—maybe ever will have.
"A lot of people just don't know what to make of us," admits singer Jim Belisle, who has mastered the art of the onstage spastic freak-out during the Pop Narcotic's four-year lifespan. "The music isn't accessible to everybody."
Guitar player Brian Murray seems proud of this: "Anything new and challenging, people will walk out on."
The Pop Narcotic are indeed hard to figure out—tougher, smarter, more subversive, deeper, more threatening, more demanding, flat-out better than almost any band with a genealogy traceable to the glory years of early '80s Dischord/SST hardcore. Descendents of Minor Threat, pre-Rollins Black Flag, and the Minutemen—almost unknown in their own day—the Pop Narcotic seem driven to an anonymity that may last a decade or more before, posthumously, they become the subject of collectors, art-band concept albums and Ph.D. dissertations on the history of hardcore.
So were they birthed 20 years too late or 20 years too early? Ask Belisle, Murray, guitarist Sean Garcia and bassist Ben Collett, and they won't have an easy answer for you. All they know is the here-and-now feels all fuckered-up.
"Our sound has been diluted by shit," Garcia declares. "In OC, the bands we play with are mostly shitty pop punk bands, while we're pretty much a harder-than-average rock & roll band."
"Pop punk bands that'll get on the Warped Tour next year with little trouble," says a cringing Murray.
Disgust, but not surrender.
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The Pop Narcotic swiped their name from Joe Carducci's 1990 book Rock and the Pop Narcotic, an excellent defense of '80s post-punk bands that went mostly ignored by mainstream rock critics until Nirvana came along; Murray has read the thing twice. They play for love because, they say, playing is all they know. Well, not all they know: for money, Murray teaches world history at Huntington Beach High School, a job that preps him nicely for idiocy, like when he assigns his 10th-graders readings on Cuba and the Sandinistas and Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, which causes them to commit such dangerous acts as "thinking," and in turn has droves of teens going home at night to tell their parents such things as "Y'know, maybe we deserved to get attacked on Sept. 11," which in turn produces a deluge of nutty parents branding him an evil, evil commie.
But Murray doesn't want to teach high school forever—and Belisle probably doesn't want to work in the Huntington Beach City Attorney's office any more than sanity will allow—so they have to spread their subversity through other channels. Like the Pop Narcotic song "Mad Frantic Negro Music," intro'd with what sounds like a scratchy, lost, 1920s field recording of Mississippi sharecroppers singing a creaky gospel work tune, with a sad-sounding black woman moaning lines about going to the well and washing away sin and the Lord bringing her to her knees, pouring her spirit out like a kettle. But it's false, a Pop Narcotic creation, actually their old bassist's sister crooning lyrics penned by Murray. It then glides sweetly into the heart of the tune (its double-take title a tag that racist Southern whites used to dismiss rock & roll as being nothing but), the drums wallop, the guitars pump, the bass vibrates, and Belisle spits and barks, "MAD FRANTIC NEGRO MUSIC! GIVE ME MORE! IT'LL SET YOU FREE!" And praise Jesus, does he mean it. (Conveniently, this can be found on Kill Your Radio, the Weekly's latest local-band compilation CD.)
And then they're off doing songs about the Salem witch trials, a subject Belisle and Murray know well from their days at the University of Massachusetts before they migrated out to California to start the Pop Narcotic together. And then they're doing very non-punk things—non-punk for these corporate punk times, anyway, which makes them very punk—like dropping obvious tastes of Charlie Mingus and Mike Watt and Ornette Coleman into their songs, and, in the middle of one track on that never-released album of theirs, an arty jam that would make the Dead proud. And then there are the grooves that tie everything up, actual hardcore grooves you can really dance to (but please, no moshing, that's for the kids). They're a big, juicy, flailing, ornery, sweaty, writhing genius band, damned to blast what they call "aggressive pseudo-art music" without concession. And they're waiting for you. Waiting. And waiting.
"We got in trouble at this Fullerton club once," Murray says. "They said we brought a bad crowd—which is impossible because we have no crowd."