Mohawked guitarist Dave Rogers chimes in. "I remember the sound guy at the Red Sea used to have a 'suck button,'" he says. "If the band sucked, you'd take that button and turn it down, so everything got real quiet."
Needless to say, American Head Charge probably needed their own suck button at one point. They cut their teeth playing for sundry aging patrons at south Minneapolis hair-metal mecca the Mirage. But their first gig was for a more captive audience. Both Hanks (who moved to the Twin Cities from Los Angeles) and Cock (who arrived after living on both coasts) came to Minnesota in 1995 for drug treatment, and met when they roomed together during a three-month "extended care" program--"for the real fuck-ups," explains Hanks.
"I had to write a song for my graduation," he says. "I'd been playing music since I was six, and part of my counseling was to write songs without drugs--I'd never done that before. So I just asked Cam to sing." Cock (or Cam--friends call him Cameron) had never performed outside of Cobainesque shower improvisations, but he enjoyed finishing Hanks's lyrics. Their first song together: "Junk Machine."
After getting clean, the two decided to form a band together. "We just started finding [members] through all the halfway houses and three-quarter-way houses where we were staying," remembers Hanks. The original lineup included guitarist Dave Rogers and departed drummer Pete Harmon.
"We really didn't put a lot of pressure on ourselves or the band to get it together and do it," says Cock. "But I think at first we were kind of trying to find sober people--or at least people responsible enough not to fuck with our sobriety."
Spinning their moniker off that of Adrian Sherwood's experimental reggae band African Head Charge, AHC began gigging as a quartet with Cock on keyboards--a configuration that never caught on in our death- and prog-metal-obsessed hard-rock subcultures, despite AHC's steady growth in popularity.
"It was a unique sound," says dreadlocked band member Wayne Kile, who jumped at the chance to join as a second guitarist two years ago. "I thought it was really aggressive music. Not necessarily aggressive in a negative way, but a positive outflow or transfer of energy."
You know, like a perforated skull.
By the time the seven-piece American Head Charge was drawing well enough to play X-Fest last year, there were three signed bands ahead of them on the bill and three signed bands behind them. Head Charge was neither signed to a major nor employing a manager.
That would change only after they opened for System of a Down in Des Moines, Iowa, two years ago, and impressed the headlining band's bass player so much that he referred them to American Recordings guru Rick Rubin. Best known for cementing the now-ubi-quitous rap-rock routine made massive by the Beasties, Rubin had also helped the Jayhawks find the mainstream. He sent Dino Paredes, the A&R man from American who had signed System of a Down, and who duly impressed the group by mentioning how he had written the bass line to Jane's Addiction's "Mountain Song" (an anecdote he presumably milks for all it's worth). Paredes soon intimated that a deal was in the making, and after witnessing the July 9 show at First Avenue, he asked the band to move out to L.A. With less than a month's notice, the group packed up and drove out to the heavy rock capital of the universe.
Legend has it that the Rubin-owned Harry Houdini mansion was where the Beatles first dropped acid. But if the band was skeptical of that story, there was milder evidence of more recent decadence at the former home of Errol Flynn and Mötley Crüe: a porn poster left by Marilyn Manson in the bathroom, and blood stains left on Hanks's wall.
Band members immediately took to the relaxed recording schedule kept by engineer Greg Fidelman. But they soon needed all the freedom they could get: Due to professional differences, AHC parted ways with drummer Pete Harmon one month before recording was to begin. Keyboard player Christopher Emery, a lifelong drummer, reluctantly took over on sticks, and found himself expected to learn 26 songs in a matter of weeks, while regaining both chops and calluses. (Before long, band mates recall, blood was spackled over the drumheads.)
Back in Minneapolis, his hands long since healed, Emery launches the band into the rehearsal's first screamer as the practice space begins filling with young friends and shy onlookers--five of them, at first, but eventually more than 20, including one fan in a wheelchair. Many of them favor the primitivist styles of the group; many of them are admitted geeks who just want be overloaded with current. Head Charge welcome them all with an older-brotherly warmth, as if to dispel any rumors that they've gone Hollywood. "This band will always be from Minneapolis," Hanks emphasizes.
The practice has all the chemistry of the band's live union with local fans, minus the slam-dancing chaos. And you can see why American Head Charge nourish perhaps the most dedicated audience this side of the Mason Jennings flock. As one fan wrote on the band's message board during their absence last fall: "For the first time in a long time, I realized just how therapeutic it is to watch them live. It's a time [when] you can let out all your aggression. It's basically just 90 minutes [when] you can totally be yourself."