Practicality is for cowards. For those who color inside the lines. For those who accept the status quo, the world as it is. It takes the impractical mind to envision something different, something radical. Only the impractical imagine a better world, a place that will accept the previously unacceptable.
“We’re vastly impractical; ask anyone we’ve stayed with,” says Dark Meat singer Jim McHugh. With gas prices heading toward $4 a gallon and the inability to make money in the music business the ghost in every room during South by Southwest, the Athens, Georgia, band brought 17 members to Austin, Texas, last March to start a 50-city tour that stops in Los Angeles Saturday night at the Echo. And at a media-hungry music showcase like SXSW, where every band is trying to convince the world that it should love his/her/its music, Dark Meat trimmed down to a near-anorexic seven members to perform not music from their new Universal Indians (Vice) but the Stooges’ Fun House. They usually play with two drummers, the kick drums facing each other like kissing cannons, but for the occasion they went with one. Why? “Because we’re playing Fun House, man,” McHugh explained while tripping on acid. For side two, five horn players gathered around one microphone and joined in. When that became too cozy, a trumpet player and a tenor-sax man with his glasses held on by an elastic strap played from the middle of the audience.
The impractical mind conceives of the impossible. “We need everything to be louder than everything else,” McHugh instructed a soundman earlier in the day as Dark Meat set up to play an afternoon party. He then announced, “This is a song about a brass band of ghosts that burns down a town and makes everything better.” The song — “Freedom Ritual” — opens with a fragile female voice singing an Irish melody a cappella before the band surge in with a four-guitar hard-rock drone that finds song shape when the horn section plays a marching-band fanfare to mark the end of each verse. It’s more than a wall of sound — Phil Spector’s indulgent, extreme precursor disguised as pop, which they reference in “Angel of Meth.” It’s a munitions plant of sound, an oil refinery of sound, but it’s not a mess. The whole thing shimmers as parts briefly emerge then recede into the din. Dark Meat get loose during the drone-based improv passage, but it never devolves into gang solos. The band members are finding their places, some out there, some serving as the trail of bread crumbs to get back to the head on time. “The full name of the band is technically Dark Meat Vomit Laser Family Band Galaxy,” McHugh says. “We’re all one big galaxy, but every member is a separate planet.”
Impracticality does, however, require a degree of sensitivity. Touring with a galaxy, even in a bus, can be a test. “There are moments when everybody’s emotions are flailing at times, but we’re pretty good at being deferential to each other’s desires,” McHugh says. Paradoxically, common sense also makes the impractical possible. Dark Meat have developed some “bookkeeping strategies,” McHugh says, and they save on mechanic costs by maintaining their bus themselves. “Our roadie Curtis actually works on the bus as it’s going down the highway.”
Galaxies don’t form by design; they coalesce, in this case, around guys whose punk bands had fallen apart or kicked them out. The plans to become a Neil Young cover band and make money playing frat parties mutated when one guitarist asked a horn player to come to practice. Word circulated through underground Athens that a band needed horn players and they all started showing up. Then other musicians arrived and the project drifted into shape. Now instead of “Cinnamon Girl,” they have “Birdsong + Footsteps, Flute, Horn” — a minute and a half of just what the title promises. The three-minute sing-along pop song is “Well Fuck You Then,” and the anthem is “Three Eyes Open,” a song the Rolling Stones were too lily-livered to cut on Exile on Main Street, itself a monument to excess and unreasonability. The Stones are an apt model for young Dark Meat; they and the Beatles never let their young, white Britishness get in the way of creating Rock & Roll Mach II, and Keith never let conventional human drug tolerance stop him from mumbling, “More, please.” On the drug question, McHugh simply says, “We’ve all done things.”
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The impractical mind comes to such realizations through uncommon means. McHugh and bassist Ben Clack are the band’s philosophers, debating the important questions. The most recent topic: “Who’s going to win, a sperm whale or a giant squid?” McHugh says. “We went past which Archie Shepp was the best to sperm whale versus giant squid.” Their answers to the Shepp question? Live at the Pan-African Festival for McHugh, Four for Trane for Clack. The whale/squid debate rages on.
The product of such deep thinking is psychedelic Southern punk rock dedicated to “the holy ghost of Albert Ayler,” made by people who can use “Fluxus” accurately in a sentence and not sound like pretentious dicks. “Our band is the human embodiment of an ornate art object,” McHugh says. “It’s experiential music; that’s why our live show is so important. I argued with Vice that they should make the sleeves scratch-and-sniff because that’s a big part of it, the assault on all different sorts of senses. Sometimes we throw snacks to the crowd to get that sense too.
“We have a song called ‘There Is a Retard on Acid Holding a Hammer to Your Brain.’ That and the song ‘Assholes for Eyeballs,’ one of those is going to end our set depending on how it’s going. After a set, we’re all looking at each other wide-eyed, going, ‘Assholes’ or ‘Retards’? ‘Assholes’ or ‘Retards’? Obviously, the answer is both.”
Dark Meat perform at the Echo on Sat., May 10. (How they’ll all fit on that stage is anyone’s guess.)