Weird Is the Word
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.
"Yeah, when Cary lit the skatar on fire and put it on my head. Yeah . . . It was pretty nutty. And I don't know who brought the handcuffs."
"No, no," says Cary. "I brought the handcuffs."
And then they all laugh. A lot. You might be a little skeptical. But then they show you the skatar, currently broken from Keith's riding it around. There's a huge dark scar across its belly.
"Blood . . . and ash?" you ask.
"Yep," smiles Keith. Later, they show you a video of their most recent performance. It's pretty much just as they told it: there's Jaime riding around on a flat-tired bicycle; Keith bleeding all over his nice white pants; Marshal in a lab coat ranting about how the concept of bodily health is bullshit and strolling into the audience to cadge drinks and cigarettes; Cary and Marshal wrestling; Keith riding the skatar, which, to borrow a term from Keith, is "squeening" like a gut-stabbed piggy; strippers from Captain Creem's creeping by; and everything collapsing noisily in on itself for the grand finale. A lot of people look scared. The rest clap. Keith wipes some blood on Marshal. The end.
"The last show we had was great," Marshal says later.
"Yeah, we changed modes from just entertaining ourselves to entertaining ourselves and others," says Keith. "When I first formed the band, I wanted the skatar to be the band—it didn't really matter who played it. I wanted it so I could be as belligerent as possible and still be in tune with myself."
He built the skatar, Doornail's signature instrument, out of an old skateboard deck, two guitar strings and a bass string. You play it with a Hennessey gin bottle—always a Hennessey gin bottle. And you tune it to whatever it wants, which is usually an A sharp, Keith says.
"I can't believe he knows this," says Marshal.
"Ever hear of 'just intonation'?" Keith asks hopefully.
"It's a way you tune things?"
[. . .]
"It's how the Pythagoreans used to tune things, using mathematical ratios?"
[. . .]
"Take someone who just understands music way too well and is bored with it—well, not necessarily bored with it, but wants to make it different—and there you go," grins Marshal.
"Okay: Harry Partch. Ever hear of him?" Keith tries again. "He was probably the most interesting classical composer ever. He was from the 1940s, and he was trippier than anything in the '60s—people always think everything trippy goes back to the '60s, but not Harry Partch. It sounds like if you had a classical orchestra and they wanted to be Sonic Youth. Instead of 12 tones to an octave, he had 43."
And was it just a few seconds before that Keith was remembering how the official color scheme of Punk As a Doornail was supposed to be white, black and blood? Because this is how Punk As a Doornail works: Keith can cogently explain the 2,000 years of music theory that went into his making a guitar out of half an orange plastic Union 76 ball and then cackle enthusiastically when he remembers smashing it to bits—with a baseball bat that was also a stringed instrument. From weird broken shit, their sound was born; to weird broken shit it shall return. If they're making noise, it's classical noise, Keith says—noise into which they put a lot of thought.
"The most fun we have with this band is the endless array of ideas that issue forth from all of us," says Marshal. They've basically got one song, one shtick, they explain—"Play a skateboard, blah, blah, blah," says Keith—but they reinvent it every single time. And that's why the strippers and the pizza and the shitstick and the bicycle and the just intonation and the 43-tone octave and, one day, if they're lucky, the ass kicking. Marshal gets very excited when he talks about the ass kicking, as excited as Keith is when he talks about Harry Partch. And right there is Punk As a Doornail: art you can kick ass to.
"I would love to piss off someone in the audience so much that they get up to fight me," Marshal says. "And the funniest part would be if they got up and kicked my ass. Because when I'm beaten down and bloody on the ground, I would look up at this guy and say, 'Dude, you are punk rock. Punk rock lives.'"
For more info on Punk As a Doornail, go to www.punkasadoornail.net.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.