Fish Tales

Killer noise maestros Hammerhead resurface as Vaz

After the sudden cold snap, some 30 dead catfish have washed up on the beach near my parents' house in Little Canada, some with big holes chewed out of them, most more than six inches long. Seeing this, my four-year-old son Wolfegang has decided that there must be some giant, psychotic fish roaming the waters of the murky lake, one with teeth all the way down to here, and fins this big. He lectures at length on the topic one evening--complete with pantomime--to a captive audience that includes me and the two long-limbed members of Vaz, who sip coffee politely and sink into my tiny couch.

"Wow," says drummer Jeff Mooridian when the big fish story is told. "He's just like Truman Capote."

Mooridian and guitarist-bassist Apollo Liftoff might be better known as two-thirds of Hammerhead, perhaps the best band ever named for a shark. There are more ideal ways to interview noise rockers--and most don't involve a competing interviewer luring subjects into his bedroom to look at toys, or a cat that goes into heat just because a male anything is in the house. Lucky for me, Mooridian and Liftoff are a couple of super-easygoing guys who don't seem to mind the Nerf ball thrown at their heads or a friendly cat butt pressed against their shins.

This might surprise anyone familiar with Vaz's scary, adrenaline-charged stage routine, which they've taken on six national tours without having released an album. Gloomy, murder-ode-singing rockers may not necessarily be gloomy, murderous human beings. But Vaz are still surprisingly sweet and reticent. Years ago, a writer for San Francisco's Thickermagazine wrote that he'd never seen anyone as uncomfortable at a dinner as Hammerhead. ("We're not that good doing interviews," apologizes Mooridian.) But their discomfort now seems mostly to come from their stature: Liftoff is frickin' tall. I don't have a height chart up on my wall or anything, but I could swear the guy had to tilt his head to avoid banging it on the door frame.

As Hammerhead, these big, gentle boys earned a national reputation for being one of the tightest, loudest, unfriendliest-sounding bands on the postpunk circuit. Between 1992 and '96, they released four remarkable full-length albums on the raucous Amphetamine Reptile label, which tagged them accordingly. "There seemed to be this need for people to label us," says Mooridian. "Because of our name, people kept trying to say we were heavy metal. We got a reputation for being a loud band, and that was the extent of what people thought of us."

Beneath the surface, Hammerhead exuded the Midwestern psychosis of their small-town origins, drifting into metal but also pop. They found fervent critical praise, especially for 1996's Duh, the Big City. But that album's title already expressed a disillusionment with the vaunted metropolitan music milieu of the Twin Cities.

"It seems like the scene has just gotten more angry in recent years," says Liftoff. "There need to be more people who just want to try different things, crazy things with music, and not worry about what people think or whether they'll like it or not."

The Vaz sound is a more daring extension of Hammerhead's alienated noise. The absence of guitarist Paul Sanders (who has since moved out of town) forced the other two to slow down and get smart. Where Hammerhead thrashed on the verge of exploding, Vaz's forthcoming first album, Demonstrations in Micronesia, is more intent on drilling one or two well-placed notes right through listeners' heads. (The vinyl version is due out on Thin the Herd in April; the CD will come out this summer on Unwound bassist Vern Rumsey's Punk in My Vitamins label.)

The music already has my neighbors clawing holes around their eyes from repeated listening. Now I know how the big fish feels.

 
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