Destruction Unit Wants to Break Free
JS Aurelius talks free-form performance, freeing America's inmates, and freeing our minds.
The first time I saw Destruction Unit was in Austin during SXSW in some gravel parking lot called Cheer Up Charlie’s. As my band finished up our fourth showcase of the day, Destruction Unit loaded in, all members wearing circular sunglasses, greasy, wild hair, and blank expressions. When they took the stage, I was embarrassingly mesmerized. The Phoenix psych-punk collective pushed through a guitar-heavy set of repetitive, trudging melodies, but the spectacle was more so the band, each member moving with such aloof ease, swirling around the stage, fucked up and twisting like crippled dolls. With his eyes bugged out and rolling, frontman Ryan Rousseau climbed up on the metal bars holding together the outdoor stage. The sound men started freaking out, scrambling around the stage frantically flowing Rousseau’s microphone cord as he climbed higher and higher. The band just continued, totally unaware or maybe just acting that way.
After our bands parted ways that afternoon, I went up to guitarist Col. Jesco Starewell Aurelius II, shook his hand, and said, “That was great. Your band makes me really happy. Your band makes me want to grow a penis and play in your band.”
Instead of walking away from my psychotic comment like a normal person, Jesco smiled excitedly, gave me an LP, and said I could play bass anytime I wanted. That’s kind of the M.O., because Destruction Unit is exactly their name: a band of men who want to push the limits in every way possible. Their wild stage show, grinding, tripped recordings, and dead-pan misdemeanor is the charm. Following up last year’s scratchy, haphazard Void LP, Destruction Unit recently released their Two Strong Hits EP and, on August 20th, dropped their latest LP, Deep Trip, on Brooklyn’s Sacred Bones. I talked to Jesco about Arizona, his art affiliate Ascetic House, Phoenix cops, and D-Unit’s daily meditations.
Noisey: How did Destruction Unit start?
JS Aurelius: Well, the band started over a decade ago, but the band you know now probably formed a year ago.
Yeah, it was a running thing that Ryan started?
To be completely honest, I'm not very familiar with the early history of the band. Ryan used the same name when we started jamming with him, but it's essentially an entirely different band.
When did you start playing music?
Maybe 13 or 14 years old. My brother and I had a guitar and a drum set and would jam together. My first real band wasn't until I was 18, though, with Pigeon Religion. I was more interested in art and writing than playing in a band, but eventually, I decided it was something I wanted to do.
Do you still write? I feel like writing for money has affected my personal work, and now I try so hard to write alone and not write for an audience.
Yeah, the music stuff has been keeping all of us very busy, but I still find time. I've got some writing in L'Ascète Magazine, which is sort of an art journal specific to our scene compiled by some other members of the Ascetic House. Everything I've written is self-published via Ascetic House.
Who is involved? When did Ascetic House start?
The number of people involved is constantly in flux, so it's hard to say for sure. The core group is all based here in Arizona, with a number of people having moved here to be involved. Then there are some Arizona people who have since moved out of state and out of country. Matt Whitley, who has written a number of publications, now lives in New York. Paul from Mall lives in Berlin. Sebastian Kruse is in Copenhagen. Most of our music releases are projects based out of Arizona as well, but not all of them are.
What's the purpose of the project?
At the risk of sounding too vague, it is impossible to attribute a purpose to what we are doing. There is no single political or social narrative that drives what we do, because it's a collective of individuals, all with varying beliefs. If there is one thing that unifies our output, it's a desire to encourage mental evolution. The world will only improve when peoples minds improve. When we evolve as a race, not when the right guy gets elected. It's a scientific goal just as much as it is a spiritual goal, but there are no specific talking points or morals we are driving beyond individual freedom.
I understand. What about the inmate stuff?
As far as the inmate outreach project, that was formed out of my sympathy for all the people locked in cages simply because their idea of living an enjoyable life didn't mesh with some other people's ideas of how one should live an enjoyable life. The goal isn't necessarily to get subversive material into prisons, although that is an added bonus. It really is just an effort to help some people pass the time. There isn't much to do in jail, and receiving some literature or music can really help a week or month go by easier.
It makes sense that you are passionate about that seeing as Arizona is a place where the cops—especially drug cops—are very strict. There are a lot of laws against recreational fun in Phoenix.
There are a lot of laws everywhere in the US. More than you could read in 10 life times if you sat down and tried, and that isn't an exaggeration. Yeah, Arizona is particularly harsh when it comes to vice crimes such as drinking and drugs, but it's pretty bad everywhere you go.
I just feel like when I am on tour, everyone is like, "WATCH OUT IN ARIZONA!" Maybe I'm just paranoid from that, especially me, coming from a place that is more relaxed about drugs.
It's because it's so close to the border. They have reinforced all the security along that stretch of the highway. I know a number of people who have gotten arrested coming from Austin heading west or coming from San Diego heading east. It's full military style check points. This is the free America we live in.
Does your singer write the lyrics in D-Unit?
Yeah, Ryan writes all the lyrics.
Are you a communicative band? It feels like a collective and it's very, like, "Just go play, see what happens," which I kind of like.
We probably don't operate the same way most bands do. We communicate, but not about the typical things. The set list is usually improvised, which sometimes has us all playing different songs at the same time. Writing new songs happens the same way: someone starts playing and everyone else just follows until pieces are in place. After we jam long enough, we listen back to it and cherry-pick the stuff we liked. When it all comes together, it really works—introducing elements of chance operation into rock based music.
Does it ever get frustrating?
Quite often, yes. [Laughs]
Everyone gets frustrated with their band. It's hard to be married to four people you never even intended on even dating.
Yeah, its true. Our best live shows is when everyone is frustrated or upset at each other because everyone wants to prove their point.
Do you guys argue a lot?
We never argue. We are a single, well-oiled, machine with a laser guided focus. One single mind.
How is that possible?
Years of group meditation.
What do you see as the biggest problem in the music industry today?
Failure to evolve, I suppose. But that is a problem with any aspect of the status quo; it wants to preserve itself. I'm not reluctant at all, because I have nothing to lose. None of us do. We are not counting on the music industry to support us or support a career. We can do everything ourselves, from booking to artwork to pressing to promotion, so having people "help you" is like, "Well go ahead, but I know how to do it so, if you leave, I don't really care.”
I struggle with this idea a lot. I don't think people realize that the minute you add capital things become contentious and that is completely okay. Nothing is simple. It's all grey.
It is very much all grey.
Very, very grey.