- July 17th, 2006
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(This feature originally appeared on the website Foxy Digitalis. Over the years I’ve had a lot to say about the USA Is a Monster. This piece, when all is said and done, is the defining statement on one of my all-time favorite bands.)
The clock passes midnight and globules of dope smoke ripple through the atmosphere like giant floating protozoa. I’m hanging at Grandma’s House, a grimy warehouse in Too Short’s “city of dope” (Oakland, California). It’s here in this artist residence and performance space that USA is a Monster guitarist Colin Matthews stands in the center of the room, in front of his two massive towers of battered speaker cabinets and amplifiers. The Monster is touring the United States, and Matthews has just screamed his way through a gnarled chunk of thrashed out noisecore invective titled, “All the Worlds Leaders Must Die”. And now fat beads of sweat fall from his rusty dreads, soaking his hulking six-foot-plus frame. His feet tinker with a homemade box — an intricately woven nest of effects pedals and patch cords — lying on the floor before him.
Just to Matthews’ right, drummer Tom Hohmann sits behind his large hand-painted kit, synthesizer, and vintage bass pedals; it’s a jerry-rigged set-up possessing a look reminiscent of the mix of scrap metal pop culture and post-apocalyptic primitivism native to Auntie Entity’s Bartertown. (Go rent Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). And Hohmann, a lanky-yet-chiseled specimen topped off with a dusty brown mane, resembles the quintessential Bartertown denizen, as he’s wrapped from head to toe in homemade threads that are a roughly-hewn synthesis of earthy love generation craft and Atari 2600-styled geometrics.
“Lets all pass the peace pipe around,” a panting Hohmann suggests to the assemblage of art punk freaks surrounding him. The symbolic gesture dissipates the fury ‘n’ rage that the Monster spewed forth during its previous jam and invokes a contemplative moment of communal unity. With a microphone headset strapped to his noggin (à la Tony Robbins), he then introduces the duo’s next jam titled “Tecumseh,” a track off Wohaw, the band’s sprawling double LP released by the Providence, Rhode Island, imprint Load Records. “Tecumseh was a Shawnee born in Ohio in the late 18th century,” Hohmann adds. “He fought the United States’ takeover of his people’s lands.”
Over the soft patient click of his hi-hat, Hohmann lays down a Native American war dance on his tiny synth. It’s an innocent little melody, perfect for some Saturday morning cartoon depicting a defiant army of Shawnees preparing for — through solemn ritual — a siege upon a well-armed cavalry unit who has pillaged the countryside. Then both Matthews and Hohmann chant:
Tecumseh strong and wise
He realized he must form a confederation
Unify all people red
A last desperate plan
Yes Tecumseh you truly understood the spirit of hope
After a brief pause (the calm before the storm), the Monster nosedives into a thunderous fist-pumping tribal rock symphony. Built from a breadth of mind-blowing time changes and chunky grooves, it — just like all the group’s jams — is a prog-rock amalgamation of twisted psychedelia, blistering metalcore, Minutemen-informed agit-funk, full tilt free noise, the syncopated cow punk of the Meat Puppets, Fat Day’s mania, and the Fort Thunder universe, as well as healthy doses of folk and world music. The crowd fuckin’ combusts, and all my extremities start flailing about.
But I’m also chewing on how the fiery anthemic “Tecumseh” encapsulates the genre defying, crossing-all-subcultures vision of the Monster as well as the cluster of side projects and art endeavors that are all guided by Matthews, Hohmann, and Barbara Schauwecker, Hohmann’s soul-mate and artistic collaborator. You see, this trio of multi-faceted artists comprises an economically autonomous collective operating out of Brooklyn, New York, who live, work, cook, eat, and produce a ton of culture together: music, the artwork for that music, clothing, concert posters, zines, sculpture, and so much more. But more importantly, they have constructed a space around themselves that is a fusion of both the millennial utopianism of classic hippiedom and the no-bullshit pragmatic ethos of DIY hardcore, a point that leads me to a great quote from Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band. Back in ye olde days of LSD and ‘shrooms, when he dressed like a Renaissance fair dropout, Williamson once said, “The only way to make the world into a paradise is to behave as if it was paradise.”
Well, as you will soon learn, this is precisely what Hohmann, Matthews, and Schauwecker are up to. Like a bunch of kids in the backwoods playing fort, they are projecting their dreams and fantasies on to the surrounding world and transforming it into paradise — one that’s warm, kind, and deliriously trippy while also harboring a sneering attitude, sharp political bite, and acute business sensibility.
“We are a unit living in the same space,” Hohmann tells me shortly before the gig, as he knocks back glass after glass of steaming yerba mate tea. He’s referring to the no-frills warehouse space he shares with Matthews and Schauwecker in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a gritty Brooklyn hood. “We rely on one another. Even if we aren’t trying to make it all one thing, it’s all coming from the same place.”
Hohmann’s role in this “place” is that of a fierce drummer and fanciful artist retaining an intense reverence for Native American history and mythology, which informs a good chunk of the Monster’s rock, political outlook, and visual aesthetic (such as Hohmann’s silk-screened image of the Nez Percé leader Chief Joseph adorning the cover of Tasheyana Compost, the record preceding Wohaw).
“In 2001 we went to the site of Wounded Knee,” Hohmann explains. “Because I read the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee after reading Black Elk Speaks, which was adopted by the New Age movement. From a Native American standpoint, that [latter] book probably did a bunch of harm to the culture. That’s why I worry about becoming so obsessed with this stuff, but I’m just trying to call attention to the mythology and the history of the mass genocide that’s continuing to this day.”
It’s that Black Elk Speaks book that has formed the basis for Hohmann’s major project aside from the Monster. Since 2000, Hohmann has been maintaining an alter ego, the surreal folk rocker Black Elf, who leads the outfit Elvish Presley. Sporting these rich multi-hued Tolkein-esque costumes that are hand crafted by both Hohmann and Schauwecker, Black Elf, according to Hohmann’s mythology, resides in an idyllic forest landscape named Hairmony, a world developed through a stream of CDs, art zines, prints, and installations (including these large psychedelic teepees), which all look and feel more like authentic archeological artifacts than art, as if Hohmann is trying to create a civilization that’s just as real as our own.
In Hairmony, Black Elf and his people (who are all a third Native American, elf, and hippie) live in romantic harmony with nature, occasionally entering our world so they may spread — via their druggy worship music and druid-tinged fable jams – love for trees, mountains, and streams. But mind you, this ain’t some overly wrought Marlon Brando/Sacheen Littlefeather shtick; Elvish Presley is firmly rooted in a child’s love for the absurd, magical folklore, and impish humor. Flipping through Black Elf’s first work, a self-released silk-screened comic and CD combo (just like those old Disney books that came with cassettes), reveals an assortment of bizarre creatures including a cyclops or two and a pink-skinned dude with pointy ears and long purple hair (Hohmann as Black Elf), as well as one totally stoned poem after another detailing Elvish Presley’s profound wisdom.
The root of man is the foot of his seed
Destruction of time is an act of his need
The lay of the land is not real in the mind
The fruit is not loved
And the people go blind…
Now two things immediately jump out at me whenever I’m transported to Hairmony (by simply toking some mary jane and cranking the Black Elf Speaks disc on Bulb Records). For one, Hohmann is one truly mystical individual who has been deeply moved by nature and psychedelics in ways that I can only dream of. And two, Schauwecker and he are definitely applying a kind of Dungeons & Dragons-informed role-playing game to their personal lives, as both of them intentionally conflate their inner imaginations with the world that supposedly exists outside their minds.
“That combination of reality and fantasy is part of my upbringing. Growing up in rural Michigan, I spent days roaming the woods around my house,” Hohmann reveals in a deep, patient voice. We sit perched atop a wooden catwalk suspended over the concrete floor of Grandma’s House. “As an adult, you have to have a healthy imagination in order to grapple with a political world.”
In the summer of 2002, shortly after Hohmann and Schauwecker met, he asked her to join Elvish Presley’s upcoming tour of the United States as the group’s costume maker and make up artist. She agreed and Hohmann’s mission to breathe life into his modern fairytales immediately moved her.
“When Tom was doing the Black Elf Speaks tour,” Schauwecker intimates via a recent telephone chat. Her words are filled with gentle enthusiasm. “I was just getting to know him, and I asked him, ‘What is this about? You are going to wear these costumes and go cross country?’ He said, ‘I am spreading hope and imagination.’ And I said, ‘Of course you are. That’s brilliant. I want to do that, too.’”
And so she started to.
Through her fashion label Bobbie Clothes, multi-media exhibits, and performance art group Animental, Schauwecker — a stunning woman of German-American and Japanese descent — has developed a sprawling faux ethnic, sci-fi aesthetic fusing African and Asian folk arts, even more Native Americana, techno psychedelia, and dayglo-drenched pattern work. To attend one of Schauwecker’s exhibitions and fashion shows (2005’s Spirit Warrior), to move about her installations (her neon tree fort), and to witness individuals modeling her fashions, is to be beamed into the tiny village of an ancient tribe of Atlantean futurists (at least that’s where I’m taken to). As with Hairmony, the entire room and all its exotic contents (including Schauwecker herself) are the externalization of her fantastical mindscape. It’s like a comic book blossoming into a three-dimensional reality or alien cartoon characters breaking free from the confines of your television set.
“There always has to be this huge concept behind everything,” Schauwecker informs me, having just returned from a month long sojourn to India where she acquired several bolts of fabric for upcoming projects. “It has to be a fantasy. I don’t want to just make clothes, like ten of this or that skirt. I would be a much smarter business woman if I worked that way, but I have no desire to.”
As a consequence, Schauwecker and Hohmann do struggle to live off their art and music (with Hohmann taking on the occasional carpentry job), but merging their talents and pooling their resources has allowed their projects to transcend the aesthetic and cultural divisions between the post-hardcore underground, the indie fashion industry, and the world of high art. Schauwecker’s exceptional sewing skills and elegant design sense bring a boutique-worthy quality to the merch table tour artifacts (t-shirts, patches, etc.) that Hohmann crafts for the USA Is A Monster. In return, Schauwecker’s delicate and graceful fashions are grounded in a raw punk vitalism adopted from both Hohmann and Matthews (who draws some truly chaotic abstract imagery himself). This allows their art and fashion to appear in high-end galleries such as Art Center/South Florida and HaNNa (a pioneering shop and gallery in Tokyo dedicated to indie designers), as well as a handful of independent boutique/galleries specializing in do-it-yourself art ‘n’ crafts created by punk-ish folk-pop artisans mining a terrain similar to Schauwecker’s, establishments such as Little Cakes in Manhattan, Brooklyn’s Cinders, the Boston-based Honeyspot, and the Rock Paper Scissors Collective in Oakland.
Taking all these ideas a gigantic leap forward, what these three wonderful freaks have done is to create a new American folk art from the remains of both pop and underground culture (as if they’ve reclaimed the pop that Warhol turned into high art so long ago). What they produce is not consumptive ephemera or pricey decorative commodities. Like the art and music of Native Americana and of Central Asia that they so dearly love, this stuff possesses a genuine spiritual value and embodies a new mythology. As Hohmann tells me, “I see the Native Americans as a people who are protecting a certain kind of knowledge that we will need when our society is wise enough to handle,” which this trio surely is.
Although Hohmann, Schauwecker, and Matthews do operate collectively and participate in numerous artistic collaborations, they each possess a strong individual identity — none more so than Matthews. While standing outside Grandma’s House and knocking back those oversized, barrel-shaped cans of Heineken, I ask Matthews if he is as interested in the culture and history of the American Indian as Hohmann.
“No,” Matthews (who is also a part time member of Elvish Presley) swiftly replies and then empties the brown-bagged can into his mouth and tosses it on to the cracked pavement. “It’s Tom’s thing, but I hang out with him everyday so I listen to what he says between songs and gain insight. A dynamic has developed lately where Tom does most of the onstage talking and singing, and I play guitar and book the tours. I book them DIY so there’s no agent getting fifteen percent. I book twice as many gigs as every other band in order to get a tenth of the money.”
With those dreads, a thick beard, and ragged duds, Matthews is a caustic, “fuck the mainstream” anarchist punk nomad who paints houses when he needs the cash and wanders North America making music when he doesn’t. He looks as if he would rather stroll into the Whitehouse carrying a shotgun (“All the Words Leaders Must Die”) than pen tribal anthems extolling world peace and compassion for the environment. As can be heard on his new solo release, Living With the Rock, the versatile Matthews (who uses his real name for his solo output, Colin Langenus) is a radical guitar player, biting social satirist, snotty hardcore screamer, and — believe it or not — a gifted country pop tunesmith. Last Christmas he put together an “all star” band consisting of five fantastic singer-songwriters (including himself): jazzy Jimmy Cousins, Adam Taber (formerly of Necronomitron), Uke of Phillips (Dan B. of Impractical Cockpit), Jonah Rapino, and Rob Francisco (a.k.a. Billy Newman). The act toured the East Coast and blew my mind at Tommy’s Tavern in Brooklyn where each dude took a turn leading the band through his respective tunes, which constituted some of the best modern American roots music that I’ve heard in a long fuckin’ time.
What’s more, Matthews is also a scrappy, staunchly pro-DIY businessman, a talent he half-jokingly attributes to the fact that his father was a skilled salesman. In the late-‘90s, Matthews’ and Hohmann’s Boston-based sludge rock trio, Bullroarer, fell apart. Relocating to Charlottesville, Virginia, for a spell, they established the Pud House, their home and all-purpose art space. Here, when the USA Is A Monster began life self-releasing a slew of homemade CD-Rs, it was Matthews who started distributing them through his newly established Massive Distribution, one of the first operations in America dedicated exclusively to CD-R mail order and trade. But eventually, Matthews — a believer in the “free or, at least, keep it cheap” philosophy — lost interest in his experiment as limited edition CD-Rs of noise and underground rock started fetching big bucks on eBay.
“We have nothing to do with eBay,” Matthews adamantly lays down, as I lay down cash for more beer at the nearest corner store. “We know nothing of dudes with computers and credit cards.”
For some, Matthews’ fuck off attitude might appear incongruous with the whimsical vibrations Hohmann and Schauwecker emit — just as punks and hippies are generally considered “oil and water”. On the contrary, Hohmann’s and Schauwecker’s artistic visions have attained a growing underground audience because Matthews, when it comes to the Monster, is responsible for maintaining the group as a small independent business: booking tours, getting paid, etc. Additionally, he passed his knowledge of DIY on to Schauwecker, allowing her to maintain both artistic integrity and economic independence. As she puts it, “These two are a huge inspiration in my life. When I met them, I realized I wasn’t crazy for quitting the 9-to-5 life. I realized I was going to be okay.”
But that’s a total understatement because these three are way more than “okay.” They’ve not only created an inspiring body of work, but they have also invented a living, breathing world that’s just as much a product of the very basic human need for myth as it is a defiant political statement. It’s hippie mysticism and punk as fuck. And when those two alleged polarities are reconciled, then something very powerful is unleashed.