Everything from fractures and broken instruments to Sonic Youth and Southern men led XBXRX to the brink of extinction and back.
By Kimberly Chun
NOISE, RUMOR , chitchat, innuendo, and even legend surround XBXRX like so many splintered drumsticks, snapped guitars, and fractured bones. Remember the time when the newly revived band coaxed an entire Bottom of the Hill audience to "get down" right onto the ground? Ever hear the story about the time vocalist Vice Cooler crashed through a wall seconds into a show in Phoenix? Or the time an irate soundguy tried to throttle as many members of the band as he could? Or the instance when ex-bass player Devin Istre used his bass as a baseball bat to beat Cooler bloody? Or the time....
Like I said, legend. If bands can be likened to prizefighters, then XBXRX can be compared to a somewhat more positive, less criminal Sonny Liston. Hell-bent on certain destruction. Driven by overheated, unnamed demons. Demons that Southern gothicist Flannery O'Connor might recognize if she grew up during the grunge years and hung at rec center punk shows in Mobile, Ala.
So they wouldn't put their sweet home Alabama in the same South as William Faulkner, Gone with the Wind, and Muscle Shoals? "It's the south!" Cooler yelps, drinking Kambucha ginger ale and digging into a raw coconut with a vengeance in the Oakland house he shares with his brother.
Living in the Bay Area since 2002, Cooler obviously digs his arch-northern Californian vegan lifestyle; he just returned from yoga, and he's trying to live healthily and fly right. "Our dad would bring us to anti-abortion rallies and make us hold Christian flags and signs against women. That's what we grew up with, shoved in our face constantly," he recalls. "I remember going to tons of anti-abortion rallies, standing Saturday along I-10 all day, holding up signs to make women feel bad about having an abortion. I wasn't allowed to listen to Pearl Jam because they were pro-choice." The brothers started to listen to Nirvana, whose pro-queer and pro-women perspectives blew open a hole in their world, while This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb turned them on to veganism. "We got harassed so much for pro-women and pro-queer views in the scene the punk scene!" Cooler continues. "It was that bad. One dude in the punk scene was sending me death threats because I kissed a dude or whatever. Bisexual, queer, gay, pro-women, pro-African American, calling anybody out on that shit, you're in the line of fire in the South immediately."
All that adds up to a fury, frustration, and will to make art that obliterates your immediate surroundings and takes you somewhere else far away and a drive that has added up to the aforementioned stories, dozens of US tours, one European jaunt, umpteen singles, a handful of split 7-inches, a debut, Gop Ist Minee (5RC/Tapes Records), recorded by Steve Albini, and a new LP, Sixth in Sixes (on the poppy Polyvinyl), on which XBXRX go as far as to name their songs for the first time. It's a blurry, crazed frenzy of an album, impressive in the way that current drummer Weasel Walter (the Flying Luttenbachers brain, who has recorded Arab on Radar, the Coachwhips, and Burmese) manages to harness but not choke XB's abstract, spazz-tastic blend of whirring thrash, grinding textural noise, fuzzbot electronics, and punky caterwaul a sound that Locust and other San Diego bands may follow but never quite embody with the same unhinged energy. The disc and the accompanying lyric sheet (!) reveal a band, as Weasel puts it, maturing and progressing wielding a deranged harmonica on this song, hammering out sheets of noise that tinkle against what sound like bolts and bells on another track, bolting for the hills with breakneck tempos on yet another, and grappling with adult concerns. On "In Memory of Our Lives," for instance, Cooler bemoans at the top of ravaged lungs, "The ones who make us grind they only destroy, never think twice, forcing new life. I swear I'll take this to my grave, the anger from lives they've destroyed, made without sympathy, and never getting sold to me."
Luckily for the music (and unluckily for some monitors and hapless guitars), XBXRX still find oppositional energy in the more enlightened Bay. "I feel like those feelings are still there but transformed as we get older the same disappointment and rage," Cooler says of the band he began in 1998 as an angry, noise-hungry 15-year-old, along with his then-13-year-old guitarist-brother, Steve Touchton. Darkness falls, and he begins to make vegan chocolate chip cookies for San Diego's Business Lady, who are staying with him. "I still have the same amount of anger, but it's from the perspective of having friends who don't have health care. They go to the hospital and they have no money to pay a $5,000 bill. It translates into the politics of being a poor adult.
From the start, inspired by a Biloxi Jay-Cees performance by a longhaired Deerhoof, the band embraced chaos, "sound, and expression," Cooler says, rather than aping Smashing Pumpkins or Tool. So chaos obligingly followed them wherever they went in the form of concussions, broken instruments, and Cooler and Touchton's biological father, known by the porn star-like moniker Bootyman to family and friends. According to XBXRX, he's been a figure to contend with throughout the band's existence: He bought the band's first drum set and wrote notes to excuse his kids from school, but he has also insisted he possessed two-fifths of the group, thereby overruling other band members' parents, and without warning, he'd trail the teenaged XBXRX on tour.
"He would follow us from the club to the place we were staying at and just get a sleeping bag and walk straight into the house, not introducing himself to anybody, just kind of cruise in," Touchton remembers over bubble tea on Polk Street before Weasel Walter jazz set at the Hemlock Tavern. "Everyone would look at him and say, 'Who's the weird gross old guy?' " Weasel adds. "And they would act like they don't know."
By 2002 the band of ever-rotating members had racked up a fan club that included recent tourmates Sonic Youth ("All my photos backstage are, like, Thurston [Moore] making us like smoothies and us drinking juices it's really not rock 'n' roll"), Unwound, and Quintron and Miss Pussycat. They'd worked with producers like Ian MacKaye, sold about 10,000 copies of their debut, and had just started to get mainstream recognition from publications like Rolling Stone for their Troubleman Mix-Tape appearance alongside Lightning Bolt and Black Dice. But the pressure of increased attention and the stresses of being young and regularly tapping into the most volatile parts of their psyches took their toll, and the band broke up when the brothers moved to the Bay Area.
Still, when they asked Weasel to be in a brand-new band, the no wave-jazz-punk legend-in-his-own-right wondered, "Why the hell would you do that? XBXRX were so great. It was such a great concept, the execution was so great, and you guys busted your asses to get the recognition that you got." The concept: uniforms (often mechanics'), no names, just job titles à la "the drummer" (to perhaps protect the underage and spirit them further away from the South), no song titles (just "nicknames" and baseball-like onstage hand gestures rather than set lists), and a sense of mystery (see "names"). It was, Weasel explains, about "the self-actualization of these kids, trying to transcend the bullshit of their surroundings by being full-force-ahead positive."
Considering XBXRX's singles-oriented past and the now 23-year-old Cooler and 21-year-old Touchton's juvies-gone-wild early years, Sixth in Sixes marks an extraordinary progression, says Weasel, munching a slice of cake with his girlfriend: "This just goes with the whole progression of XBXRX. I think it's very symbolic with the new album, they've finally gotten away from their father. They've become their own people.
"The band has put more effort into this album than anything they've ever done as far as quality and making sure that this really was as close to what we wanted it to be as possible. Oddly, it's a maturity thing, but mature doesn't mean it sucks or it's lame or boring."
The short, sharp blasts of aggression, the ultraproductive hyperactivity, the music-making, songwriting, touring, roadie-ing, multiple band juggling on the part of all members (including new bass player Ed Rodriguez) if this is maturity, then it encompasses an awareness of time as something one races against, trying to do and make as much as possible before Mother Nature claims her destroyers, as the notion of the "Sixth Extinction" (the inspiration for the new album title) goes. "It's important to delineate what we do with our music," Weasel says. "The aggression is not some kind of macho, hardcore jock aggression. It's kinetic, but it's a nonconformist thing. The aggression is energy in the service of the end result, which is raising everybody off the floor by a few feet."
So things get broken, or crumble in the way of the dinosaurs, in XBXRX's wake but it comes with high spirits and, Touchton confesses, the "dumb mistakes that any idiots like us can make and end up costing $400. Like turning a sampler up a hair too much and destroying a $1,000 speaker. Like [Cooler] jumping into a wall and not realizing he's going to go completely through it."
"Or you doing an awesome rock-star jump off a monitor, pushing the monitor off the six-foot stage onto a bouncer into the third song of the set," Weasel continues. "And me seeing this and going, 'This is gonna totally suck.' " Suck it did, although Touchton and Weasel both have to chuckle when he adds, "It didn't even look good."
XBXRX play with Kid606 and Mika Miko Fri/9, 10 p.m., Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. $8. (415) 474-0365.