The box on the van floor.
Of course, when I talk about “our band vehicle,” I’m making it sound like I’m in the band. I’m not. In fact, the recent trip I took with them as a roadie was my first time even serving in that capacity. It’s easy to feel like part of the family with them, though—there’s a very communal vibe in the way they operate as a band, and there are always a bunch of people who aren’t playing any music along with them when they travel out of town. For example, on this trip, there were eight of us in the crew, only four of which are actually in the band.
On the way up to DC, where the show was, I rode shotgun and made most of the decisions about what we were going to listen to. The van doesn’t have a CD player, as befits its advanced age, but it does have a tape deck. Recently, Kevin found a box of tapes at his parents’ house that he donated to the van so that there’d be plenty of stuff to listen to during tours. The box apparently belonged to Kevin’s older brother, who is also involved in the underground punk scene, has been in a few reasonably well-known bands, and in fact plays the same instrument Kevin does. It’s always obvious that he loves his brother, but it must be a pain in the ass living in that kind of shadow.
Anyway, the box is full of all kinds of random stuff. Evidently, Kevin’s brother has eclectic tastes. There are several early demos by mid-90s era DC area bands, including what might be the first Frodus release. The awful Bad Brains cassette from the late 80s with the homophobic song on it is in there. There are even two different Iceburn tapes—and all of this is just scratching the surface. Also, before we even got a chance to take the box on tour, a travelling punk girl who had crashed at the Richmond house for a few days dumpstered a bunch of random stuff that she donated to the house, including a stack of half a dozen or so tapes. There was an Aphex Twin tape that I immediately swiped, but the rest got thrown into the box.
A lot of the stuff in the box is totally sweet when you’re just looking at it and thinking about carrying it on tour, but once you’re on the road, you notice the glaring holes in the collection more than anything else. Whatever you’re in the mood for, there’s a good chance that it’s not there. I ran into this problem while DJing on the way up. I played Helmet and Avail, and Jamie picked out a tape by Mass Movement of the Moth, who are friends of their band from DC. But I would have grabbed some other things if I’d had the choice.
It’s OK though, because even though I’d heard almost everything in the box, most of it was stuff I hadn’t listened to in a long time. The new context this re-introduction provided pointed out factors about old albums that I had never noticed before. The Helmet tape, “Strap It On”, reminded me of their emphasis on syncopation, often created through use of guitar parts that were in a completely different time signature than the drum parts. Every four bars, they’d end at the same time, but what you didn’t notice was that the drums had played the part one more or less time than the guitars did. Meanwhile, I discovered that the Iceburn album “Poetry of Fire”, which I own on vinyl, contained a bunch of new material on cassette—the entire vinyl album, both sides, were on side one of the cassette, while side two featured some live performances I’d never heard before. I got to listen to that in the morning.
The show went well, though it showed me once again the rough road my friends had had to follow during their three years of existence as a DC area band. They played with a youthcrew hardcore band whose fans, for the most part, weren’t interested in their brand of balls-out rock n’ roll chaos. Youthcrew, I realized, is a very formalized style of music, allowing for little experiementation or variation in songwriting. Kids who come out to youthcrew shows aren’t there to see something new and different, something they’ve never seen before. Rather than deriving excitement from the pushing of boundaries, they derive excitement from the continual recycling of time-honored (some might say time-worn) techniques. For them, a band doing something they like for the millionth time is just as exciting as the band that did it the first time, perhaps moreso. This is fine for them, I suppose, but I can’t relate to it in any way. I might have enjoyed them more if I was still 18, but those days for me are long gone.
After the show, we made our way back to Kevin’s girlfriend Andie’s place, where we all slept on sleeping bags, pillows and comforters laid down on her living room floor. We’d stopped for food on the way there, and by the time we got back to the apartment and prepared to go to sleep, it was 3 AM. In a little more than three hours, we all had to be up to take Jojo to Dulles Airport. Her flight left at 9 AM, which meant she had to be there at 7:30. I was the only one who hadn’t been drinking the night before, and therefore was going to be the only one really capable of operating a motor vehicle after three hours of sleep on a hardwood floor. Eric sat shotgun in the van and told me how to get from where we were (somewhere in Northwest DC) to Dulles Airport. We dropped Jojo off at 7:35 in front of the Delta Airlines gate, and she and Eric spent a few minutes saying their goodbyes (they’ve been dating for a couple of years now). It’s not going to be the same at the band house without her around. Even though she isn’t an actual member, she symbolizes a lot of what I love about their attitude as a band, at least to me. Sharing, friendly inclusiveness, and a lack of concern about material things, to be specific. If you’re around their house at dinner time, you’ll probably get fed, even if you don’t have any money to kick in for the food that’s being cooked, and that’s usually Jojo’s doing. She’s going to visit her family in San Diego for a couple weeks. I’ll miss her, though I’m sure Eric will miss her more.
It took us two hours to get out of Northern Virginia. We ran full-force into rush hour traffic, and every shortcut we tried to take was just as clogged and slow-moving as our original route. Once we got onto the Beltway, I knew where I was going, and Eric joined Jamie, who was already sleeping in the back of the van. I couldn’t go to sleep, though—I was supposed to be at work at 10. I wasn’t going to make it, but I had to get there as soon as I could.
Since no one else was up, I had full control of the music, and after the Minor Threat tape Eric put on ran out, I pulled out both Iceburn tapes that were in the box. “Sphinx”, from “Meditavolutions”, led into a live version of “Poem of Fire” that turned into a Black Sabbath covers medley by the end. I wound that tape to the end of the side by hand since the fast-forward and rewind on the van’s tape deck are both broken, listening to radio static and watching for cops while I did so.
Iceburn are some sort of hybrid cross between improvisational jazz and dark, heavy hardcore. Their entire sound seems to speak of psychedelic drug trips and thick marijuana haze, which makes it all the more surprising that their records came out in the early 90s on Revelation Records, home of Youth of Today and all of those other late 80s New York straight-edge bands. At the time they were active, Iceburn were extremely polarizing, and it seemed like way more people hated them than loved them. Despite that apparent lack of commercial viability, Revelation continued to release anything they wanted to give them, even after their roster expanded from three to first five, then seven members, some of whom played jazz instruments such as tenor sax. Their final record, the one with seven members, was attributed to “The Iceburn Collective”, and was over an hour long. Its centerpiece, “Sphinx”, is 22 minutes long and goes from quiet jazz interludes to pounding, off-time brutality. I can’t help but wonder whether they’d be universally loved in today’s far more experimental hardcore scene, or if it’s their connection with Revelation that keeps them from enjoying a rediscovery as a seminal early influence.
Either way, it’s fascinating listening, but even that wasn’t enough to keep me from flagging on the 90 minute drive home. When I first wake up, even if I’m determined to roll over and go back to sleep, I always stay wide awake for at least an hour. This was just as true of this morning as any other, but by the time we finally made it out of the hated Northern Virginia area and onto 95 South, I had been up for three hours, and was starting to drag. Soon, I was fighting sleep, finding my eyes closing of their own accord. I eventually had to stop at a rest area, just to use the bathroom and hopefully revive myself by walking around for a few minutes. Jamie woke up as we pulled in and joined me while I was buying a drink from the vending area. We pooled our silver coins and found enough to get each of us a drink—him a water, and me a Diet Pepsi (I needed the caffeine).
When we got back into the van, he dug into the box and found a Dirty Three tape that had been part of the traveling girl’s dumpster haul. I’d never heard them, but he said it would be in keeping with my Iceburn-themed morning. Sure enough, it was. Their music is violin-based instrumentals, jazzy at times, heavy at others, always sounding at least somewhat improvised. It was perfect when we pulled back into town, during that moment when you slow down after hitting the exit ramp, and what you were straining to hear over the blowing air through the windows suddenly rises in volume and fills the entire van. In the moments before someone reaches to turn it down, it’s beautiful. It feels like someone is welcoming you home, or at least to a gas station or rest area. Somewhere you can at least get out of the van for a few minutes.