Aaron Montaigne, Godfather of Screamo, is More Interesting Than You Can Ever Hope to Be - Part One
Photo by Justin Pearson
Aaron Montaigne isn’t the easiest guy in the world to talk about. Rumors run rampant and people get distinctly uncomfortable. Satanism, hard drugs, and (worst of all) PATRIOTISM are all part of narrative that precedes him. Dude loves his gun pictures and has, like, twice the number of ex-wives of almost everyone I know. But I figure life is for living, I happen to like people who get people talking, and you have to have a lot of love to get married so often.
Since the age of 13, Montaigne has played in some the most exciting and original hardcore bands that came out of the United States. As a newly-swaddled baby, he played drums in one of my most favoritest bands of all time, Heroin. He would later form the hugely influential (for good; punks tucking in their shirts, and for bad; men without enough Siouxsie records in their collection to justify it wearing eye makeup) Antioch Arrow, a band that, along with Orchid, arguably did the most to spawn the unfortunately-named “screamo.” That shouldn’t be held against them, as they were both awesome and quick to go out of that scene before it became hair metal for jocks with bangs.
Throughout the '90s and early-aughts, Aaron—with Antioch Arrow's later albums and then through Tarot Bolero (his band with then-wife, Myra Power of Slant 6), The Witches, and (with second wife, Jessy Montaigne) Magick Daggers—would go further off the rails into more and more interesting and dark avenues. He was basically a turn of the century Zelig, but with agency.
Oh yeah, almost forgot: during all this, he joined the army and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Montaigne has a new band, Dangerous Boys Club, with a new album. I decided this was as good a time as any to get his life down in his own words. Our talk gets a bit—as my dad would say—“inside baseball,” but for anyone with interest in either hardcore music or foreign policy (and that’s pretty much everyone, right?), it’s pretty fascinating stuff.
Noisey: Thanks for agreeing to talk to me. Lets start with the supposition that nobody knows who the fuck you are. Where are you from?
Aaron: I grew up in San Diego, California.
How old were you were you started your first band, and roughly when were you born?
I was born in 1975, which makes me 37, and uh, yeah.
All right. So what age did you get into punk?
[Deep breath] So in San Diego, in the mid to late 80s, skateboarding was really popular. Del Mar Skate Park was there, which was famous for all the Powell Peralta skateboarders, and I grew up in Delmar, like 25 miles north of downtown San Diego. So we were all skateboarders and stuff. I was never very good at it, per se, but that’s what we did when we were 10 to 12 years old—we skateboarded and wore hockey shirts. But being not very good at it, I’d get called "poseur" and stuff, which I kinda was, but whatever, I was a kid.
This friend of mine in high school named Gina, her older sister was the total riot grrrl mod punk chick and got her little sister, Gina, into punk rock. One day, at school, Gina brought me a tape of the Sex Pistols' Nevermind the Bollocks, and she was like, “Hey, you should check this out!” So I go home and listen to it and I think it was the second song on the record, “Bodies,” where they’re swearing a bunch—really, it put a lightning bolt through me, and just really struck me as something raw and real and pissed off, and pretty much that day I gave up skateboarding and completely was like, “I wanna be a punk. I wanna be a punk rocker.”
At that time in high school, there was punks and death rockers, but I was younger than most of the kids there. There was a band called Heroin that just started, so I would go see Heroin, and it was raw, so I was immediately a fan. They went to my high school and I was pretty good friends with the bass player—we were kinda best friends at the time. I was younger that than them by a couple of years, which—back then—a couple of years is a lot. Or, at least it seems like it’s a lot.
They wanted to take the band a little more seriously, I guess, and the singer was kind of a drunk punk type dude, so they kicked him out and they did a lineup change, and asked if I wanted to play drums. I was like, “Hell yeah!” My mom had gotten me a drum set, and I wasn’t playing in any bands so I was like, “Yeah, great.”
So how long had you been playing drums?
I was 13, when I joined Heroin.
[Laughs] Oh, okay….
So that was probably like, '89-’90. I was 13, and the first gig we played was some backyard in Pacific Beach with a band called Funeral March, which was this cool band in San Diego. They were older—OLDER OLDER—but they were cool. And I remember I wore a Misfits t-shirt to the show, and the rest of the Heroin guys were like, “Dude, not cool, you can’t wear a Misfits t-shirt anymore.”
[Laughs] Um, they were right.
Whatever. I still love the Misfits.
How soon after that did you guys start recording or get hooked up with Gravity Records?
It was probably a year where we were playing and just kinda getting our jam, and doing cassette 4-track demos. I think it was probably a year after we started playing as the main formation of the group that we decided to do a seven-inch, which at the time, not a lot of bands did records on their own. The first record was on a mix between Gravity Records, Vinyl Communication—which was another San Diego label—and Downside Records. Our first record came out and it sounded cool raw punk, but with a new take on hardcore music, from our perspective. We were inspired by punk, and Youth Crew-type straight edge stuff was popular with us. We would play with a lot of those guys. But we were also really interested in the DC sound. Rites of Spring, Ignition, stuff like that…
I think we were the first of these San Diego bands to incorporate a DC-influenced sort of hardcore, which set us apart from a lot of the other bands around at the time. We quickly gained momentum because of that, but we’d still play with Chain of Strength or, like, Born Against. We’d still play with the other bands even though we had a different take on it.
I remember the first time I heard you guys, I couldn’t figure it out at all, but it’s funny—when you read up on both Heroin and Antioch Arrow, it’s sort of thought of as precursors to screamo, or the inventors of screamo. But at the time, before emo became such a dirty word, it just felt like, “This is emo, like Rites of Spring… but spazier and crazy."
Exactly. It was just the difference in the whole “My friends let me down!” We were more like, “I’m in love, I have feelings,” you know what I mean? So that was the influence.
Right. You guys didn’t do the crying at shows, though. Presumably...
Negative, dude. [Laughs]
[Laughs] You guys put out a few seven-inches and that twelve-inch…and then what happened?
We put out that first seven-inch, but the second one came out, which was just on Gravity, and we had this idea, “Hey, let’s just silkscreen paper bags and put them together.” And that seven-inch, I think, was the best of Heroin’s work, personally.
Yeah, that’s my favorite.
We recorded at this place called Doubletime Studios in the desert, pretty much. When that came, it sort of propelled us to the next. We started going on tours, playing with five bands like VSS, and all those kinds of bands started coming out a couple years after Heroin started. So we did the paper bag seven-inch, and then a year later, we wrote the album, which we recorded at Inner Ear in DC—that was a killer experience.
Did Don Zientara engineer it?
Yeah, he engineered. We got the famous “rolling” thing happening, stuff like that. I kind of forgot we recorded there, but that was definitely—like as a 15-year-old, I was just really psyched, 'cause it was something a lot of my heroes did.
Umm, did you say you were fifteen?
Yeah, I was like 15, 16 maybe.
[Laughs] Wow, okay.
I was just imagining, like, freakin’ Guy in there… so that was a really cool experience. We just did a lot of touring at that time. We were kind of getting big on the East Coast, so we would always drive out there and just do a ton of shows with Born Against and a lot of East Coast bands that were around at the same time.
Were you mainly listening to stuff like Born Against and ABC No Rio and other San Diego bands, or were you just as much listening to… You know, 'cause there was a divide between that and the more "tough guy" hardcore. Were you listening to both or…
We kind of listened to everything. We listened to Rorschach, we were listening to Shudder to Think. It was kind of all over the place…. I was listening to Rites of Spring stuff, but we would jam out with Infest and Rorschach and play those kind of shows. Back then, you didn’t just have your genre; if it was punk and underground, you listened to it. Even if it was emo-style, like Reason to Believe or something, that was our jam.
Right, so then what happened? How did that end?
Probably around the time when we recorded the album, I wanted to sing in a band—I was really inspired by Chris Thomson, who was in Fury, which was SWIZ with Chris Thompson singing, and it blew my mind. I was like, “I wanna sing!” And at that point, I started hanging out with Mac Mann who wrote all the Antioch Arrow songs. We quickly became good friends. He introduced me to the Birthday Party, so we were like, “Fuck, let’s start a band, dude!” And so, it was me and Maxamillion Ron Anarchy who played drums in Antioch Arrow—he was in Heroin for two shows before me, but he was just too tight of a drummer.
We were like, “Dude, why don’t we get Ron Anarchy to play drums in Antioch Arrow?” He was totally perfect for the part. We got Jeff Winterberg and this guy Aaron Richards for guitars, and Mac would play bass. There was this abandoned house in Carlsbad that we would rehearse at. We’d just play whenever we wanted, however early or late we wanted. We recorded like a little split seven-inch with some other band, Candle, and we started playing shows. We had a different take than Heroin did; it was a little noisier and spazzier, and we were kinda stylish. We saw Nation of Ulysses when they first toured, and we were like, “Whoa, those dudes are wearing suits, we wanna look cool too.” We just didn’t give a shit what people thought, 'cause at the time, it wasn’t really cool to look cool. We got a lot of flak for that.
So that was the kind of thing early on, and then we recorded our first album, and I stole artwork from a Frank Sinatra movie poster— The Man With the Golden Arm. After that, people started noticing us, so we started playing a lot more shows. At the time, I was doing shows with both Antioch Arrow and Heroin at the same time. I’m not really sure why Heroin broke up, to be honest. I know those guys had already graduated high school and I was a senior, but then... I don’t know why we broke up. We just decided to have our last show. I never thought it would be the last show. It was huge. [Heroin was] a good band, people liked our sound, but that was the last show we played. I guess it was cool 'cause it definitely gave me more time to focus with Mac on Antioch Arrow and songwriting for that.
What was the progression from the straight emo of Heroin to the more romantic and goth influence of Antioch Arrow?
I think that came a lot from my DC influence—everything from Rites of Spring to Ulysses. Ulysses was singing about hickeys and stuff, and kissing… stuff like that. That influenced me. I feel like I still kind of write the same lyrics now that I did then, I just had a more romantic take on stuff than, like, the Locust. When I was writing, I felt like I was trying to write poetry, and have it be a little bit out there but at the same time just being pissed off... but being romantic. Singing about high heels.
We recorded our second record, and we changed one of our guitar players to Andy Ward, and what he had been known for before was a sort of avant garde guitar sound. We had Jeff playing straight barre chords, and the other new guitar had this weird guitar through this weird custom amp and cabinet and kinda did noise guitar stuff and weird chords, so that added a new element for the second record that I thought was really cool and different at the time.
Was he influenced by the Birthday Party, or was he just coming at it out of left field?
He was coming out of left field—he really did not play guitar conventionally. The Birthday Party influence was more Mac Mann, 'cause he wrote all the songs on the bass, and he was very much inspired by Tracy Pew.
We finished the second record and did a bunch of touring, which was awesome. Before our last record, we were on tour in Denver, and we were supposed to play one of those Kill Rock Stars events, but we just thought the van wasn’t gonna make it, so that was our last show. I had moved out to DC and fell in love with Myra Power, who was playing in Slant 6. The band and I were talking about finishing the record when we got picked up by this other label out of LA, that was a subsidiary of Delicious Vinyl, who put out Tone Loc. This weird dude was like, “Hey, I work for this record label, I’m gonna fly you guys out to LA.” So Mac and I went out to LA and we recorded that last record at the Beastie Boys' studio that they had out there.
Which record was this?
This was Gems of Masochism. The more gothy one. We were really getting into Nick Cave-like stuff at that point, which was funny to think that, like, at 18, Nick Cave was influencing this hardcore band.
We started incorporating synthesizers and stuff. I mean, this studio was killer; they had a fucking skate ramp there, they had all these Moogs and all these really weird synths.
What the fuck were they thinking? [Laughs] Did they think they were gonna make money off you guys?
No, I don’t think so. I mean, maybe. We were really popular at that point, so maybe. We were getting ripped off a lot, which kinda happened back then. You just want to make music and play to a bunch of people, and you don’t really think about money. So we recorded that record, and people did not respond very well to it. Hardcore kids were like, “What the fuck is this?” It was kind of an avant garde piece, if you listen to it. I hadn’t listened to it in a while, but I remember thinking, "Hmm, this is a weird record.”
It’s a tough record to get into. I love it, but it’s a tough, tough record.
It’s weird hardcore. [Long Pause] At that point, we were kind of wanting to break away from the hardcore scene. Maybe we were getting arrogant and thinking, "Okay now, we’re artists." I think we wanted to play for more types of people than just kids in Downcast t-shirts. This probably wasn’t the most positive, forward thinking at the time, but fuck, we were 18, and that was our thought behind that; we were just gonna do this weird, avant garde, kinda goth hardcore album and have some weird art on it. I thought it was a cool record, but people at the time did not like it.
We planned on touring with Slant 6, and that kind of fell through 'cause there wasn’t enough money to do it, so Antioch Arrow officially broke up around then.
So, were you already married?
I wasn’t at the time. I was in DC, and then Mac and Ron Anarchy (aka Maxamillion) and Valentine, who was Mac’s girlfriend and is the singer of Get Hustle, they all moved to LA, so me and Myra were like, “Lets move to LA!” 'cause we all still wanted to play music together. So we started—Maxamillion playing drums, and Mac on piano, and this girl Mackie playing bass (who’s married to Buzz from the Melvins), Myra on guitar, and me singing. We called that Burlesque Affair. It was really sorta Nick Cave-y, but weird Get Hustle style. We played about two shows in LA, and then that died. I just did not like living in LA and I had a weird falling out with Mac, so me and Myra split, and that band ended up becoming what is now Get Hustle.
Where did you go after that?
I moved back to DC with Myra. That’s when we started a band called Tarot Bolero, which is not my favorite band I’ve ever been in. It was just like, I can play drums and sing, and I’m looking for people to play music with. Jameson, who I was friends with, was like, “I have this organ and we’ll do these circus jams,” and I was like, "Whatever, I just want to play music."
So were you teaching yourself how to write music at the time?
No. Negative. I still don’t know how to write music.
Neither can I. It’s hard.
[Laughs] Ha, no. That’s for other people, man.
IN PART TWO: SHIT GETS DARK; AARON GOES TO WAR, PORTLAND.
Thanks to Zohra Atash for transcribing.