Raw Power

Spilled blood, blown fuses, and perforated skulls: the unlikely rise of American Head Charge

Martin Cock is no sentimentalist. A body mural of tattoos, a face full of piercings, and a steadfastly indifferent grin all lend the American Head Charge frontman a cultivated air of hard-rock cool. Yet last July, he hushed a near-sellout crowd at First Avenue so that he could speak quietly and from the heart. "We're savoring the moment," he said, without irony. "To all of you who have respected us, we return that respect. Thanks for coming to all our shows."

As I remember it, the "moment" went something like this: Band announces pending record deal with legendary Beastie Boys producer Rick Rubin--the Big Break. Crowd proceeds to reenact the climax of Braveheart on the dance floor--Big Funk. Crowd chants "Head! Charge! Head! Charge!" as all seven members kneel on glittering glass fragments left by smashed television sets, bowing respectfully before the scariest pit in recent memory. The Big Finish!

Seven deadly sinners: American Head Charge members (left to right) Wayne Kile, Dave Rogers, Chad Hanks, Martin Cock, Justin Fowler, Aaron Zilch, and Christopher Emery
Seven deadly sinners: American Head Charge members (left to right) Wayne Kile, Dave Rogers, Chad Hanks, Martin Cock, Justin Fowler, Aaron Zilch, and Christopher Emery

Nearly one year later, the piece of broken glass that lodged in Cock's leg has "grown in." But the Minneapolis band's drawn-out moment shows no sign of dissipating. It's a sunny May afternoon, and the man whom we can only hope the New York Times will one day call Mr. Cock pushes open the steel door of a meat locker-like practice space to let in some air. Head Charge have rented space in this warehouse building for almost all of the four years since Cock founded the group with bassist Chad Hanks. Inside, band members set up to practice as a baby doll on a noose dangles from the ceiling--a knick-knack they recently brought with them to Rick Rubin's Hollywood Hills mansion, perhaps in order to feel more at home while living and recording there for eight months.

Head Charge have just put the finishing touches on their Rubin debut, The War of Art, due out July 17. They're now tightening up for the national tour of their wildest dreams: a slot on Ozzfest 2001, which will bring the titular bat-biter and other metal heavies to nearby Somerset, Wisconsin, on Saturday.

Both Hanks and Cock live in L.A., and look L.A. (The other five members have returned to live in the Cities.) Both have a thick build and a long shock of chin hair--though Hanks has a shaved head and Cock keeps a Danzig mane. Both are cautiously optimistic about their chances for wider recognition. Only a couple of years ago, their band was little more than a rumor outside the valiantly unhip Twin Cities heavy rock scene. Local critics said Head Charge sounded like Helmet or Anthrax with too many samplers--i.e., like a lot of bands critics hate, from Static-X and Papa Roach to all the bastard sons of Johnny Lydon who use screamed vocals as Birmingham cops once used firehoses.

Head Charge knew how to pummel, but their electronica-drenched scream-hop evoked something sorely missing in local rock: fear. The title of their self-released 1999 debut, Trepanation, is defined by Webster's as "the act or process of perforating a skull with a surgical instrument"--which might also serve as a concise review of their music. But the word also reads as a cross between "nation" and "trepidation," recalling the depressed patriot's dread in Jimi Hendrix's "The Star Spangled Banner." (The band uses the upside-down American flag--longtime symbol for one nation, under stress--as its trademark.)

The busy new thrash-rave number "Americunt Evolving into Useless Psychic Garbage" captures similar foreboding--never mind the over-the-top title. Perhaps overloading is both a weakness and a strength for American Head Charge: The War of Art is pumped full of enough noisy synth squeals to make Public Enemy sound like Kajagoogoo. All the guys need to reproduce this impressively groovy roar in your local high school auditorium is power--and lots of it. The musicians now include two synthesizer players--and enough sonic effects to cause a rolling blackout around whatever unfortunate house party they play. "Every place we'd go to, we'd be like, 'Are you sure you have enough power?'" laughs Cock as he sets up a mic. "They're like, 'Oh, yeah, I got it in a socket in the kitchen--it's all good.'" (In the first hour of rehearsal, the room goes dark three times.)

Hanks has his own scar to show off: a burn he received from electrocuting himself onstage at the Red Sea. But crossed wires might come with the territory. "I spend a lot of time routing everything into everything else," says keyboardist and technician Aaron Zilch, briefly looking up from his computer as other members file into the space to tune their instruments. His head is shaven clean save for six tiny braids colored Mister Yuck-green.

The other synth player, Justin Fowler, a.k.a. Control, has a sort of Two Face look--half clean-shaven skinhead, half muttonchopped redhead. When I ask him to define the Head Charge sound, he starts going on about "pushing the 18s" (18-inch speakers) and using cabinets that have "sack."

"Is 'sack' a sound term?" I ask, missing the scrotal reference.

Fowler laughs and assumes a Spinal Tap accent: "Yes, could you please turn up the sack a bit?"

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