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!

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.

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

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?"

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."

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