These 40-Year-Olds Are L.A.'s Most Exciting New Punk Band
Photo by Marc Gabor
Hardcore punk's image is generally one of youthful rebellion. The most iconic images trotted out in books and documentaries are of genre pioneers such as Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye before they were even old enough to buy beer.
So how did Obliterations vocalist Sam James Velde and guitarist Stephen McBean — both in their mid-40s — put out the most vital hardcore punk record of 2014?
"We just jammed a bunch and said to ourselves, 'Let's not play rock,'?" McBean says over beers at Red Lion Tavern.
McBean is known for his work in psychedelic rock outfits Black Mountain and Pink Mountaintops. Velde, a Newport Beach native, has been kicking around the Los Angeles scene since the mid-'90s with hard-rock acts Bluebird and Night Horse.
But since coming together as Obliterations toward the end of 2012, the din generated by the duo — along with bassist Austin Barber and drummer Flo Schanze — is a much uglier beast.
The group's first proper record, Poison Everything, is 29 minutes of pure ripping mayhem. Velde provides the razor-gargling, paint-stripping screams. McBean's riffs are appropriately caustic, but his psychedelic rock background also is audible, making his guitar parts more dynamic than most in the hardcore genre.
Velde's manic performances belie his age with a youthful vigor both on record and live. At Obliterations' recent Los Globos gig, he whipped half the audience into a vicious pitting frenzy. The other half scurried toward the back of the room in fear and awe of the band's presence.
"I thought Sam was way younger when I first met him," McBean says. "One of my friends even congratulated me on finding a young 20-year old kid to sing with me."
At 44, Velde is old enough to have fond memories of defunct '90s L.A. punk haunts Jabberjaw and Al's Bar. But he says his age, if anything, has only given him more life experience to channel into his music.
"You have a different perspective when you're older," Velde says. "Especially when you start to look heavier into how many fucked-up things are happening in the world, from bigger governments down to even just the workplace. As a younger person, you really have no true idea how fucked up the world is."
Obliterations lyrically channel raw, personal anger on tracks such as "The One That Got Away" and "The Narcissist." Velde, the band's primary lyricist, says that making the record was very cathartic, helping him deal with a bad breakup.
"It was a very confusing relationship," Velde says. "There was a lot of manipulation. ... I think this record was very healthy in getting those feelings out. I can't get away with screaming in her face as loud as I can on this record."
While Obliterations' album was definitely affected by personal events in Velde's life, his pessimistic worldview also came into play, adding extra heft to tracks such as "Normalized Decline."
"At the core, it's about how we treat other people," Velde says. "The title track is about how we poison everything that we love. There's too many shitty people doing shitty things. Everything we put our hands on ... we fuck it up."
Velde's lyrics may be focused, but musically Poison Everything is fast and loose. Worshipping at the altars of Black Flag and Motörhead, Obliterations play with a recklessness that dangles precariously on the fine line between organized chaos and falling off the cliff. That spontaneity was evident from the moment Velde and McBean decided to jam together.
"We didn't jam with the idea of even really starting a band," Velde says. "I just remember Steve bringing this riff in that turned into 'Kick Against the Pricks' from our first EP," released in October 2013. "And it just led to the next song being more aggressive. We didn't really dissect anything or think about it too much."
Even the way in which bassist Barber joined the band was done on the fly. When Velde was in Night Horse, he had performed on bills with Bay Area stoner rockers Saviours, for whom Barber plays guitar. Velde initially reached out to Barber about joining Obliterations as a second guitarist.
"The day we talked on the phone to confirm the jam session," Velde says, "Austin asked what Stephen was playing. I told him Stephen was playing guitar and Austin said, 'Great! I'll bring a bass!' And it was a bass guitar that he had fished out of a garbage can!"
The actual recording of the album was jammed out in three days at Dave Grohl's Studio 606 on the Neve 8028 mixing board featured prominently in last year's Sound City documentary. Grohl has remarked on the board's ability to capture a raw human element, but Poison Everything may be one of the rawest documents to be recorded on that legendary board.
In hindsight, it should have been a no-brainer for L.A.-based Southern Lord Records to release Poison Everything. Velde has had a working relationship for several years with Southern Lord founder Greg Anderson, putting together the annual Power of the Riff metal festival in conjunction with the label since 2011. But when Velde first talked about the record with Anderson, he asked the doom-metal icon about other homes for his newest work.
"I asked Greg, 'Who do you think would be cool to put out this record?'?" Velde says. "He said, 'Me.' I trust his opinion on everything. If he'd steered us somewhere else, I would have gone for it."
With the buzz that Poison Everything has built since its October release, one might think the members of Obliterations have every intention of making it their primary focus. But while the group is planning to continue touring in 2015, they have no intention of abandoning their other projects.
McBean will be reconvening with Black Mountain soon to record a new record. Velde is working on a new project with Scott Winegard, bassist for '90s post-hardcore greats Texas Is the Reason. ("It's going to sound a lot different from Obliterations," is all he offers to describe it.)
Velde and McBean may be older than the majority of folks starting bands, but there is one sentiment McBean shares with many teenagers taking a similar path.
"Hopefully," he says, Poison Everything "will be a record that my mom doesn't like."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.