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Please Explain: What is Garage Punk?

Please Explain: What is Garage Punk?
King Khan of King Khan and the Shrines performs on stage on the first day of Eurockeennes Festival at Malsaucy on July 3, 2009 in Belfort, France. (Photo by Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns)

How A Retrograde Strain Of Weird, Fun Punk Stays Alive In The Underground, Or: Are You Bored With Animal Collective Yet?

By Beverly Bryan
February 4, 2013

The band is up on stage bashing out what could be a punk addled Chuck Berry cover. (It’s that good.) It’s the first song of their set and they’ve been at it for awhile but the space in front of the mic stand is still conspicuously empty. Some audience members are bored enough to glance down and see a man’s legs wrapped in shredded pantyhose and shod in a pair of fuck-me pumps scrooching across the club’s sticky floor, headed for the stage. Nobunny has arrived, albeit on all fours.

He reaches the stage and stands at last in just the hose, pumps, his briefs, and a grimy bunny mask that looks like he cut it off of an abandoned stuffed animal. With a stage persona that is part charismatic frontman, part cartoon animal, he proceeds to slay the adoring audience with a sweating, voice cracking, totally unstinting performance. Tonight must be special. He usually just wears the mask and dingy tighty whities.

Justin Champlin, the man who is Nobunny, plays in other bands without the mask, but out a love of rock ‘n’ roll mystique everyone goes along with the narrative that he is an unknown, wandering rabbit. It’s not a schtick. It’s not a gimmick. It’s probably something closer to a mystery religion. In order to call it something, a lot of people call it garage punk.

Every now and then people start talking about garage punk, or, more likely, about garage rock or garage revival. In the early 2000′s there was a lot of hype about such bands in Detroit and elsewhere, in the wake of The White Stripes’ break out. By the end of the decade, guys like the Black Lips and Jay Reatard were edging toward rock-star status. It’s rebranded slightly by the media every time, but the first and most important thing to know about garage punk, is that in between bouts of hype, it doesn’t really go anywhere. Like a weird, freakishly resilient punk beast, the music flourishes in dark corners, except for when it’s in SPIN.

That it persists is one thing, what it is (besides funner, weirder, louder music than whatever you are listening to) is a little harder to put into words. Garage punk is like pornography. You know it when you see it. (If you look at some of the album covers, actually, it’s a lot like pornography.) Perhaps the simplest way to put it is that it is punk inspired by all the ragged roots of rock ‘n’ roll as we know it today, including all earlier incarnations of punk itself. This spirit-filled revival tent sprawls, but it is absolutely a thing, with a specific history and, it has to be said, its own (low-brow, fringey) subcultural fixations.

One of the best places to hear gen-u-wine examples of the genre is Gonerfest, a yearly, four-day music festival in Memphis, Tennessee put on by Goner Records. During the festival, you can go to the Hi-Tone Cafe to hear bands from all over the world with influences including, but not limited to: ’70s power pop, ’60s girl groups and garage rock, hardcore punk, early blues and R&B, and even surf rock. The approach could range from reveling in nasty guitar sleaze like occasionally reunited ’90s trio The Oblivians to the sweet, Shangri-La’s worshiping fuzz of Vivian Girls, but it’s all punk and all driven by fervent, evangelical conviction.

Goner Records founder and owner Eric Friedl, who under the name Eric Oblivian was part of The Oblivians and later The Reatards with the late Jay Reatard, sums things up this way, in terms of what he looks for in a band that he might release on Goner: “It’s kind of more of an approach, a kind of reckless, loose approach, kind of based in rock ‘n’ roll but it could go in any direction, from Quintron’s way out there keyboard stuff, from Carbonas’ straight-ahead punk rock. Nobunny’s kinda pop. It’s all over the place, but kinda no frills, not taking yourself too seriously but not a joke.”

In his book We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001, music journalist and New Bomb Turks frontman Eric Davidson traces the roots of the current garage punk scene back to the hard work of reissue labels like Crypt and Norton, which started releasing the work of “lost Mid-Century weirdos” in the early ’80s before moving on to releasing stuff by lost Late-Century weirdos.

Eric describes the history in terms of generations punk musicians digging into the roots of the music they love, finding the bands that made their inspirations want to start bands: “People keep going back to old music and saying ‘Wow, Little Richard is more punk than the Sex Pistols. Now I’m influenced by Little Richard’ or ‘The Sonics are the most punk band ever. Now we’re doing Sonics songs.’ There’s been waves. In the ’80s there were a bunch of bands that took more of the style of the ’60s and liked to dress up and cut their hair the same way. And then The Mummies sort of did the same thing with a sort of trashy take on it.” Friedl says The Oblivians were inspired by groups like The Gories, a Detroit band from that era. This is also the period that birthed legendary bands Guitar Wolf and The 5.6.7.8s, both from Japan. Like rock ‘n’ roll itself and punk in general, the scene has always been an international phenomenon.

Today, it remains a haven for individualistic music obsessives, a place for people too strange for even the mainstream of punk, which is more communal, at least in its stated ideals, more politically engaged, and all around hippie-ish by comparison. (Garage punk isn’t very “all-ages.” Underage is a different story.) “It’s less addressing society. It’s more personal and it feeds off more of the energy of the music and that’s the punk aspect of it,” Friedl observes.

Founded in 1999, King Khan and the Shrines embodies pretty much every aforementioned attribute of the genre. His show has a freaky soul revue vibe completed by saxophone players, a back up dancer, and Khan’s own psychedelic presence as a frontman. He often performs in hot pants, a gold lamé cape and not much else.

Ask him about the kind of music he plays and he’ll serve you a garbage plate of references: “It’s rock ‘n’ roll music, simply. But if you look into it, there are several major influences: old rhythm and blues music, ’60s psychedelic music and garage punk, if you want to call it that. But I love free jazz, there’s a lot of influence from Sun Ra and that whole world of music. A lot of doo-wop and early rock ‘n’ roll.”

Now 36 and based in Berlin, where he lives with his wife and children, Khan got into this kind of thing as a teenager hanging out in Montreal. He started playing in a band called The Spaceshits with Mark Sultan, who he now plays with in the King Khan and BBQ Show. As one of the first writers for Vice back when it was a small local rag, Khan interviewed the late Jay Reatard when both musicians were still teenagers. The music was the soundtrack to his program of antisocial mayhem. “We had a following of teenage delinquents and we’d get into trouble at shows and people would set off smoke bombs and throw raw meat. It was basically an excuse for everyone to go ballistic,” he recalls.

The Shrines are part of the most recent recent wave of garage punk bands, or second to most recent if you wanted to see Ty Segall and younger folks like that as yet another unit. Understandably, he tends to think of the current generation in terms of his personal history and the people and bands closest to him: “I used to call it the Death Cult. That was basically kind of like getting together a big family of bands. There was The Spits and the Black Lips and Demon’s Claws, Jay Reatard, King Khan and BBQ, and The Shrines. All of those bands put out albums in the same span of time which would make my mouth drop and I’d be like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve been waiting for so long for someone to make an album like this.’” Nobunny could be said to be a more recent member of the death cult.

Friedl finds that the backward gaze actually frees musicians from the constraints of being contemporary, paradoxically granting them greater creative latitude: “What dates music is really being of a certain time. So, I think when you are drawing from the past it kind of blurs those edges. This music, because it draws from a lot of different things, it can go forward and it’s not so specific to one time.” Put another way, it might make it easier for a band to do their own thing and even make something enduring if they aren’t trying too hard to sound hip.

“You can even go back to stuff you might have missed and go ‘I see where they were coming from and what they were trying to do,” Friedl adds in relation to taking inspiration from decades past. This kind of rock isn’t really revivalist in nature, not when it’s done right. At its best, it’s a case of songwriters going through the archives and seeing where others left some unfinished business in their haste to embrace the future. This methodology results in albums that could have come out at any point in the last 50 years and blown minds, and which will blow minds next year. Well, this methodology, plus a screwball commitment to tearing open new assholes with with old styles of music that were trashy and stupid the first time around.

For Khan, who believes that there were garage punk bands even back in the ’60s, his mission has more to do with the present than the past: “I don’t think of it as revivalism. I think of it as carrying on a tradition of rock ‘n’ roll, without being purist, because I think rock ‘n’ roll is very important, like, for now. It’s sad when I see kids who have no idea who Chuck Berry is.”

This faith is what sets the bands mentioned in this article apart from similar sounding raw rock bands like, say, blues rockers The Black Keys or all-around ’50s-fetishist Hanni El Khatib. In the early days of Khan’s Death Cult, the bands would paint their faces white while touring together, mostly to freak people out. But there was a deeper element under the makeup, one that could be applied to a lot of the bands in the wider garage punk cult, and perhaps traced back who knows how far.

The brilliant but troubled Jay Reatard died of a drug and alcohol overdose in his native Memphis in 2010 at the age of 29. Remembering his friend, Khan says: “We were teenagers when we all knew each other and it was so great to go to Memphis and to find out that there’s a brother there that actually believes the same thing and has the same hatred and way to deal with hatred. I guess that’s what it comes down to. A lot of us really did have a strong hate for society and the way it is and then we started doing what we wanted to do. That’s the thing about the Death-Cult people is they all live and breathe music. There’s no pretenders.”

Though this is the scene that launched the careers of Jack White and the Black Lips, perhaps garage punk’s greatest attribute is that the scene itself can never get too big and therefore watered down. Its underground status is built-in. It’s too heterogeneous and stubbornly difficult to define to ever be marketable as a genre per se. And, as much as people do like rock music, they usually don’t like it too corrosive or unruly. But, most of all, music that draws so much on the past can never be the new hot thing, even if it sounds fresher and more alive than whatever the new hot thing supposedly is. It’s cool, though. It’ll still be there whenever the flavor of the month starts sounding retro.

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