Before Los Angeles punk rock became infected with the rigidly limiting hardcore ethos and calcified into a grotesque self-parody, it was a wide-open, volcanic crucible. Alongside classic snarling 1977 miscreants like the Weirdos, Skulls, Deadbeats, Bags, there coexisted a deliciously bizarre array of diverse musical tangents — Black Randy's apocalyptic funk, the guitar-free Screamers, the Germs' deconstructed sludge. But the absolute living-end strangest were The Flesh Eaters, a band trading in an assaultive, industrial-strength brand of esoteric rock & roll philosophizing. Led by the intense, cerebral writer-singer-educator–record producer Chris Desjardins (aka Chris D), the Flesh Eaters, despite serial personnel shifts, quickly became a Hollywood institution, one who never sounded like anything but themselves and never did anything that was even slightly predictable.
Perhaps the highest example of punk's disimprisoned aesthetic, the Flesh Eaters staggered and slammed through a propulsive round of shadowy, wrenching albums, all topped off by Chris D's agonized vocals, always detailing otherworldly tableaux that typically found him crawling naked through broken glass to atone for or repair some spiritual or romantic catastrophe. It was a sort of devastating existential psychedelic state: intense, low-lit, scorching in its brutal immediacy and assuredly not for the fainthearted — the ultimate achievement in uneasy listening.
"I don't think The Flesh Eaters would've happened if it had not been for the U.K. and New York punk scenes goosing Los Angeles' outcast musicians to give it a go here," Desjardins says. "When the L.A. punk scene exploded, I was already writing record reviews for Slash Magazine, and I thought, 'Why the fuck not?" I don't need some suit-and-tie, coke-sniffing record company twat to tell me it's OK.
"This was really an important moment, not just for knowing I could play music but also [because] the DIY ethos in every facet of my creative life, including my writing, has always been the prime thing for me. Music writers have often called it indescribable," Desjardins says. "I guess we just do it to play the kind of music we like, the way we like to play it. Or, to paraphrase, before the whole shithouse goes down in flames."
Never one to squander an opportunity to raise some hell, The Flesh Eaters are back, one more in a spasmodic series of reunions, with Desjardins leading the group's stellar and best-known lineup.
"Paradoxically, though I'm the sole lyricist, wrote about three-quarters of the music and am the nominal head of the band, I'm the only one who doesn't make their living playing music," he says. "All the other guys in this lineup, who played on A Minute to Pray and A Second to Die, the second Flesh Eaters album, are all very successful in their own endeavors. John Doe and DJ Bonebrake from X, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Dave Alvin, formerly of The Blasters, with his band, and Bill Bateman, drummer of The Blasters, as well as other bands around town, such as The Electrick Children.
"We do have a booking agency now, so theoretically we could be doing more shows than usual in the next couple of years. Of course, these guys' own bands take priority," Desjardins says.
It's not as if Desjardins has been sitting around clipping coupons and waiting for his buddies to free up their schedules. He is a prolific writer and film historian with an eye-popping résumé: "I had a very productive creative life, churning out a 500-page anthology of all my lyrics, poems and dream-journal entries in 2009; five novels; a volume of short stories; and my long-in-the-works Gun and Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955–1980. It's 800 pages long, so that was a gigantic magnum opus to bring to a close.
"But I felt creatively blocked as far as writing fiction for a lot of reasons, mostly serious depression," he says. "So I decided to try a bit harder getting my other fellow Flesh Eaters to commit to some more shows — primarily, just to get my ass out of the house."
With five of this city's most celebrated musicians behind him, Desjardins' Flesh Eaters rate both as an all-star sensation and a singular creative exercise, which allows each player to stretch out and reach for invigoratingly unconventional — and hard-hitting — artistic territory.
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"We'd always talked about doing more shows with this lineup for years," Desjardins says. "But it always seemed a bit hopeless, as these guys are all workaholic road dogs, and I'm horrible as ever at procrastinating on stuff till the last minute. But somehow, miraculously, there were the five gigs we did up the West Coast three years ago, and now these shows we're playing from San Diego up to Vancouver."
Desjardins is in the midst of another exhaustive cinema history book, a 500-page international noir/neo-noir compendium. He's also building up to a reformation of his post–Flesh Eaters collaboration with Julie Christensen, the Divine Horsemen, and intends to make another Flesh Eaters album. This will all doubtless come off with the somewhat haphazard yet fateful drive that colors and characterizes his offbeat approach.
"You never know whether you've got another 20 or 30 more years, or 20 or 30 more days, so make them count," Desjardins says. "Do it fucking now before they light the pyre or shovel in the dirt over you."
The Flesh Eaters play at the Echoplex at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 18.