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Scraping From the Inside Out: A Conversation with Justin Pearson

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One of the musicians I get most excited about hearing new work from is Justin Pearson. He’s a really interesting dude, who in the 90’s founded Three One G Records and formed one of the weirdest bands to ever emerge in extreme music, The Locust. These days he mainly spends his time in the phenomenal band Retox, as well as the long-gestating Head Wound City punk/noise project (which counts members of Blood Brothers and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in its ranks).

Justin and his Retox bandmate Michael Crain were recently recruited for former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo’s new outfit, Dead Cross. That project afforded Justin the opportunity to embark on the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise, and, well, if you know Justin, he had some things to say about that experience, documented on a must-read Noisey article from a few weeks back. Given the amount of ties to the heavy metal world Justin currently shares, I thought it an apt time to talk to him about metal, punk, art, and being an independent artist in the modern music world.

In addition to your work with Retox and Three One G, you’ve got a Head Wound City album coming out on Vice’s new label, you’re in a band with Dave Lombardo, and you’re writing tremendous articles about the metal scene. I guess doing this much stuff is the norm for you, but how do you feel everything you’ve got going on?

It’s a good question. I guess from the outsider’s perspective it always seems insane, but from my perspective, it’s only mildly insane, at times. A lot of things I’m involved in kind of have pretty fast breaks, like there are pauses – I’m not really doing anything with Retox at the moment. We were gonna start working on a new EP or a single, then we [Justin and Retox guitarist Michael Crain] kinda just got roped into this Dead Cross thing, which was very spur of the moment, and it kinda got pushed a lot faster and further along by Dave. Which is cool, but it was something we weren’t really expecting. Normally I wouldn’t be taking on as much as I am if it wasn’t for the fact that there was this weird alignment of the planets. I’ll be honest, it’s been a little bit stressful trying to balance between Head Wound City and Dead Cross, and then just like, day-to-day survival and mental stability.

With Dead Cross it was just so insane, because it was presented as, “we need to write a set and play three shows” and then it was like, “oh we need to just record a couple songs to get a record deal” once we decided it was going to be a real band, and then we decided to record a full album, so it’s just been non-stop. There was a point where I was up in Venice Beach tracking with Ross Robinson, and I’d have to take a night off to go play a show with Head Wound City. It’s just been a little hectic.

It’s a rare point right now, I don’t get this busy all the time. Even the article for Noisey, little things like that, don’t really interfere with music or art. Things just come up here or there. I always have time to do stuff – I went and tracked some vocals for this song that my buddy Luke Henshaw, who’s in another project I’m in [Planet B], is doing. It doesn’t really take a lot of time, it takes me an evening or so to write lyrics, and then it takes me an hour to track some vocals, and that’s about it. So little things pop up here and there that don’t interfere. It’s mainly preparing for a tour, writing a record, recording a full album, those are kind of the major things. It comes and goes, I suppose. Recently it’s been very hectic but it’ll all pass.

I got really interested in you and Ben Weinman from the Dillinger Escape Plan, who I know is a close friend of yours, at about the same point in my late-teens. It was inspiring to me to learn about artists like you guys, who do all of these various things completely on your own terms. And what’s interesting is you both come from a punk and hardcore background. After reading the Noisey article, the main subtext I get from it is that the metal bands you’re talking about are always just going to be metal bands.

I see what you’re saying, but even with metal, or punk – it’s the same fucking thing. I’ve had a lot of disdain for punk over the years. It’s horrible. Playing with bands like the Casualties and shit where they’re accused of rape, they’re wasted, they’re loaded, they need to borrow our guitars, that shit isn’t “ethically” punk unless you think Sid Vicious is the poster boy for punk. I identify with other artists, people that are a little more progressive. Not to go down a rabbit hole of ethics, but even the thing with the cruise – people were so offended by that – and it’s funny, because I didn’t say “fuck these people” or “these bands sucks.” I don’t even know their music. The only thing that I said sucked was the music that was played in the hallways of the boat. It was just a little absurd, I thought. I watched Cradle of Filth and realized that there were no amps on the stage, and I said it sounded like shit. I wasn’t talking about the actual music, I was talking about the sound.

It was just a weird thing. Everyone’s going “he’s not a true metalhead,” and yeah, I’m not a metalhead. But, with that being said, I grew up with metal. I saw Slayer when I was 14 years old, I saw people bleeding out of their eyes, broken arms and shit. Even before that, I went to this house party when I was 12 and smoked weed with the Slayer dudes. I think that’s a little bit more “metal” than some of those people on the boat claim to be. But I’m not trying to pull rank: I was just trying to say I went on this boat, it was pretty fucking absurd, and Gabe made this fake piece of shit, and it was funny [really, read the article – ed].

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I’m not a metalhead, and if it comes down to it, if I’m gonna classify myself, I’d rather say I’m a punk. I am a punk! You can be a punk, and be into metal. I don’t know if you can be into metal and be into punk. Watch Heavy Metal Parking Lot. That wasted dude in a zebra-print jumpsuit making fun of punk and how it sucks, and like, well, I just like the mindset for punk music.

The weird thing about that article is, when I was a little kid, I was into Cramps, Septic Death, stuff like that. I’d see pictures of Slayer, and see PIL and Dead Kennedys stickers on their guitars. Those guys were punks too! The thing is, I just felt like overall, people take themselves way to seriously. We’re on a goddamn cruise going to Jamaica. How metal could that possibly be? Argue with me all you want. Those people all paid a shitton of money to go to Jamaica for six hours. That’s just kinda weird. It’s weird to be on a beach in Jamaica, watching all these people in black walk towards a resort. It’s fucked up culturally. It was a job for me, and I had fun, and I really appreciated going, but it was a trip to see this culture of… I don’t know, I think it was missing a lot of points. It was so weird, it was so unappreciative of a worldly picture. I don’t want to say it was unsettling, it was just confusing.

As for Ben Weinman, that guy is brilliant. I think he’s one of the most talented artists – because I think he goes beyond music, that guy is clearly an artist – his stage presence, his performance is just absurd. It goes well beyond any kind of genre of music. And he’s totally capable of playing all kinds of music, and of appreciating all kinds of music, you can tell his influences are pretty vast. That guy should be… talk about top of the world of guitars, as far as I’m concerned. He riffs every way possible. And I think people respect that, and it’s cool he can do it on his own accord.

For me with the two of you guys, or another artist I know you’re friends with, the filmmaker John Waters (Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, Cry Baby, etc.), what’s exciting is how those genre boundaries don’t exist. You were in an arthouse drama film directed by Asia Argento and starring Charlotte Gainsborough and it’s not out of place with your music at all. It sounds so simple but I feel like nowadays, thinking and doing things for yourself is a rare thing. Especially with Internet comment sections and the “groupthink” mentality of our time.

When The Locust started getting more popular and people would ask us what our influences were, I realized that our influences came from stuff that was well beyond music. I feel like a lot of artists’ downfalls is they only draw from a certain genre of art that they’re already part of. I think that’s where you start replicating, or start making a second wave of something that already exists. A second wave is fine, but I think it has to have an element to it that makes it its own thing. I’m certain that a lot of stuff I’ve done sucks, and that’s fine, but I still try to be creative and learn, to draw influences from some other thing.

Even getting into John Waters’ movies when I was younger, investing more time into learning about his perspective on cinema, totally relates to music! I was also reading this book at the time, Bomb the Suburbs, about hip-hop and graffiti, and there were these subtle references to how it was exactly like punk. I thought it was crazy, it wasn’t even about one thing – there’s all these different things about urban culture that tie in together. Look at certain hip-hop artists like M.I.A., all these different elements have cultural relevance. I don’t want to use the word “revolutionary” to sound trite, but I really do think that work by people like John Waters is revolutionary, I think what Ben Weinman does is fucking revolutionary.

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Not to keep going back to that metal article, but man, going on tour with Dillinger Escape Plan, and just knowing Ben, you have a fucked-up standard of metal at that point. I don’t give a fuck what Cradle of Filth or any of those bands are doing – I’m not saying they’re not metal – I’m just saying, “eh… fucking Dillinger Escape Plan!” Whether or not they’re “metal,” just the sheer fucking brutality and intensity of a live act like that puts everything else to shame.

But I’m well aware that the reason I was on that boat was Dave Lombardo, not because of me or anything I’ve done. No one gave a fuck, and that’s totally fine. I got to go on a cruise, and that’s cool with me.

Do you think people are more easily offended now than they were 10 or 20 years ago? I know you’re not trying to piss people off and are just making your art, but you do often find yourself at the center of controversy, so I’m curious about your opinion on modern day “outrage” culture.

It’s weird because… fucking great question, and I might go off on a tangent. Historically, if you think of G.G. Allin, there’s this great documentary about him called Hated [by Todd Phillips, who would go on to direct The Hangover], where in one scene they talk about how Dee Dee Ramone was gonna join his band. And G.G. was too fucking gnarly for Dee Dee Ramone, and you’re like, that makes sense! They were pretty gnarly dudes. This guy is taking a shit on stage, punching people in the face, getting his ass beat – you really couldn’t top that. That’s it, that’s the limit, how do you top that, really? Even the Mentors were a joke compared to G.G. So there’s a reference point.

Fast-forward however many years, and the Jerry Springer thing happens – G.G. had already been on T.V. pulling pranks, or being honest, or whatever you want to call it. We just went on as a joke, we thought it would be funny. It’s cooler to do something than to not do anything. We didn’t really have a perspective on it, and we didn’t really care. We just decided, “let’s do this today,” which is how me and a lot of my friends lived our lives at that point. So it was never precalculated – and I don’t think G.G.’s stuff was precalculated either, even though it eventually became the norm for his shows.

I remember The Locust going on tour and getting maced, getting beaten up, getting our tires slashed – just full-on, people wanted to fuck with us. And it sucked! We didn’t really do anything, which was kind of the most fascinating part. At the end of the day, we didn’t do a thing, and people are so fucking mad that they’ll risk possibly going to jail to fuck with us. It’s pretty weird to think about that. It helped spin us into this weird realm of, like, garbage. All these people were talking about the way we looked before we had uniforms – and that’s kind of why the uniforms started, because we thought we’d fuck with them! Then they’ll have a reason to talk about the way we looked. We were just bummed that nobody was paying attention to the music. We were called “the worst band” in hardcore, or whatever, by Jessica Hopper – and that was a pretty fucking big deal. Only one band gets that!

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It was really fascinating. It made us go into this more obscure realm of absurdity – let’s dress in full-on suits and masks. Devo was a huge influence on everyone in The Locust, but our goal wasn’t to be like Devo, we just wanted to play music. Then it became this other thing – “they’re not grindcore, they’re not hardcore, they’re not punk” – and its like, fuck you, we never said we were any of that! Then we’re spending our time figuring out what fake genre we could be, like sci-fi cyber-grind or something that doesn’t even exist. It comes back to the fact that people take shit way too seriously and way too personally.

As far as the offensive culture you’re talking about, I don’t really feel that I’ve been offensive at all. I feel like I pissed off three people on a message board about a metal article I wrote, or I get a handful of people that want to fuck with The Locust, or one dude who only has the balls to slash one of our tires. It’s not like G.G. Allin where there’s Nazis and stuff, where people want to throw us down a staircase. It never got that brutal. And it couldn’t, or shouldn’t. We weren’t trying to will that energy. We also weren’t trying to will the mediocrity we were seeing in people.

I think it’s just shitty energy. It’s just a waste. Fuck all those people – I’m still here, the Locust is still here, and we still have the same morals and values. We still like the same weird shit. We’re still going to be influenced by the stuff that we like. All those people we [supposedly offended] just bailed.

You are still here through all of that, and are still making music on your own terms, which is really exciting to me. I believe we’re in a rare time for extreme music where the best stuff isn’t being made by the kids, it’s being made by older guys – Aaron Turner in Sumac, Converge, Dillinger, etc.

It’s weird, when I was a little kid just starting to play music, I always tripped out when I saw a band play and one of the guys had a moustache. Like he was my dad or something. Now I know guys who are in their 50’s and touring – I’m in a band with Dave Lombardo, he’s 51! Nick Cave is still going. Keith Morris… that guy is fucking rad! He’s got his ear to the ground, he realizes his place in music culturally and historically, and he goes out and starts an even more ripping version, and has OFF! It’s weird to think that there’s a shelf life, but again, people limit themselves. If you were to step outside of it and think, “I don’t have to keep doing the same thing, I want to do something different,” then there you are!

Yes, I want to see Nick Cave in the Birthday Party. I’m not the biggest fan of his more recent material, but I still appreciate it, and I think it’s so relevant and important. Even that film he put out was really fun. He figured out a way to change with grace, and that’s really cool. It just shows the honesty in what he’s doing.

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