Aaron Montaigne, Godfather of Screamo, is More Interesting Than You Can Ever Hope to Be - Part Two
On surviving combat in Iraq and Afghanistan with the help of magic, 'Bladerunner,' and everything in between.
Welcome to part two of my interview with Aaron Montaigne, formerly of Heroin, Antioch Arrow and, essentially, everything else that happened between 1995 and now. In part one, Aaron gave a detailed overview of his experience in the West Coast hardcore scene of the ‘90s. In this final part, we discuss, besides his new band Dangerous Boys Club’s new record, his time serving overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I should also mention his new record. It’s called PRIS and it’s amazing—a (despite Aaron’s protestations to the contrary) fantastic amalgamation of Suicide, Roxy Music, and the VSS. Please purchase it with American dollars from Dais Records.
Aaron (continued): We recorded a record, and we did a tour, and the tour ended badly… the drummer and the bass player were on drugs—it was just weird. Then me, Myra, and Jameson moved to New York, and continued the band there with Ryan Noel of A.R.E. Weapons (who died), but if kinda fizzled fairly quickly after being in New York.
Noisey: Around what year was this?
This would be around 1996 to 1997.
Right, 'cause I think I saw you in Witches around 1998 or something.
Yeah, that came right after that. You saw Witches?!
Yeah you guys only played like three shows, didn’t you?
Yeah, I know, I loved that band. We had the killerest practice tape from that.
Oh really? I’d love to hear it! I had a great time.
So, yeah, Tarot Bolero breaks up and I’m kinda just playing around in New York. I played with Jim Sclavunos for a little bit in Vanity Set for like a minute. That’s how I met Peter Mavrogeorgis. I was in a band with Peter and Isaac Hampton called Gallowsbirds. Then I started Witches with Michael Gerner of Vietnam and Dave Clifford of the VSS and Red Sparowes. We played a couple of shows, and my girlfriend Pandora was playing at that time, and that was really cool, but it was just really hard for me to be in a band in New York, because of practice space situations and partying a lot. I just couldn’t focus.
Then there was this band called Crash Worship out of San Diego that I’d grown up seeing. They were this insane, weird, psychedelic occult band. So they were like, “Hey, we’re gonna be doing this tour, we need you to start flying out here and play drums in it.” So, I was commuting back and forth between New York and San Francisco. This was around 1999.
Pandora and I were going back and forth between New York and San Francisco. I did the tour with Crash Worship, which was fucking amazing. I didn’t have a lot of artistic input, but it was the most fun experience playing those shows. We decided to move to San Francisco. Once we got there, Pandora and I broke up right away. I started this band called the Chandeliers, which was a Suede-like band. We weren’t the most unique band, but we had fun at the time. Omar Perez, who’s a big DJ dude in SF, played bass in it.
At that time, I was kinda fucking up. I started using heroin and being a shithead, kind of. Then I started playing with a couple of other bands that were shitty and I was just feeling bad about myself. So I got on methadone and kinda just hid out for, like, a good year and half. I got myself off drugs, but at the time, I was just thinking, "I’ve been doing this since I was 13—playing music and art." The pressure of doing good work started to get to me a little bit. I just needed to get away from it, get away from everyone, and not think about that stuff. At the same time, I kind of wanted an adventure. I was really inspired by Lawrence of Arabia, who was this British soldier who went out to Arabia and tore shit up. So I figured I would go join the army. Afghanistan was happening at the time, kinda, but Iraq hadn’t happened, so my thinking was I’d go be an infantry man, and go learn how to shoot and be physical, 'cause I’d never done sports or anything physical in my life, and I thought it would be healthy for me.
I didn’t even tell my girlfriend at the time, Jessy Champagne (Jewels of the Nile, Vows), I just told her, “Hey I just joined the army, I hope that’s cool.”
Was it cool?
No, it was not cool, she was not happy. I expected her to bail, but she didn’t, which I thought was really rad. But yeah, it did not make her happy. So, I went to basic training. At the time I was like 26 or 27.
What were your politics at the time?
I didn’t really have any. I didn’t really have set political inclinations; I was a vegetarian for a while. I mean, I was raised with my mom telling me how evil the government was, but…I just didn’t really care, I just wanted to live my life and not worry about anything.
Yeah, so one day at basic training, they pulled us aside and said, “So, hey, by the way, we just invaded Iraq, you guys are all going to war.” And the time, we were like, “Cool, that sounds exciting,” you know? So I graduated infantry school/basic training, which was pretty easy, since I’d never really run, or shot a gun. I thought it was really fucking easy, and actually pretty fun. I was having a great time just hanging out with the boys, from the simpletons to the eccentrics, being around a bunch of people I’d never normally be around.
Did they accept you?
Yeah, because I was cool and had tattoos, and I played music…though none of those people knew what kind of music I played. To some of them, I was like, “People know me as a musician,” and they were like, “Yeah…right.” But they liked me because I was cool and funny and good with people. I was accepted pretty quickly.
So me and my unit were upstate—like, hella upstate—on the border of Canada. And pretty much the day I got there, me and a couple of other guys, the cherries—they called you the cherries—they were like, “Yo, you’ve got about three months and then we’re off to Iraq.” I had literally just moved with Jessy, who was now my wife, and I had to tell her I was going off to war in three or four months. She was not psyched on that either. So she bailed and stayed with her mom, and we went to Iraq in 2003. We drove into Iraq from Kuwait, and our job was to secure this power plant just south of Baghdad. I was there for a year, running combat operations there and Fallujah. We were one of the blocking units there for the whole Battle of Fallujah, which was pretty crazy.
So you actually were in combat?
I was, yes. In Iraq, it was a lot of indirect combat, with mortars and IEDs, but on Easter Sunday of 2004, we did get into a really big firefight. That was my first direct fire engagement. That was on Easter, and I don’t celebrate Easter anymore because that was the first time I ever killed a man. That was really weird an—strange to say—exhilarating experience, which makes me feel a little awkward to say. It is just a weird feeling, being in combat with people trying to kill you, and throwing grenades at you, and trying to shoot you. I mean, you see these bullets pass right by you. It was an exhilarating experience, and it was the first time I ever felt that feeling. In combat. That was the biggest firefight we had there in Iraq.
There was another occasion where we had the whole base destroyed by mortars, and all we had was the uniform on our back, no weapons, just the weapons we had on us. So we had to wear marine uniforms for a couple of weeks while we got resupplied.
There was a bunch of gross stuff… like car bombs; body parts everywhere. Just war—a real war. But you know, I had fun! You go out, you do a mission, and you come back and watch movies, read, listen to music, and chill out. It was beautiful there, the sunsets were beautiful—it was right on the Euphrates River, palm trees everywhere. It was like LA, kinda.
So I performed really well as a solider. I was promoted to Sergeant and I had people under me. I was a leader. It was a cool learning experience for me—being in charge of like, five people from medical to emotional state at home. It’s a really interesting experience.
So are you in Iraq right now or Afghanistan?
This is in between. We went home for a year. Jessy, my wife at the time, came back up and we had a house. I went to school to become a Sergeant. They were going to be sending us to Afghanistan, and I was like, “Whatever, Afghanistan’s nothing,” 'cause at the time, we weren’t hearing too much about Afghanistan. This was about 2005-2006. We did our training for Afghanistan, which was nothing really. We should have been climbing mountains all day, but we weren’t. In 2005, we deployed to Afghanistan.
The place sucks, it’s just mountains, and rocks. There’s nothing beautiful about it; it’s kind of a piece-of-shit country. Everyone is super poor, and you can tell nobody likes you, whereas in Iraq, they were all like, “Yay Americans!” With Afghanistan, we’d been there long enough to where people were not psyched on us anymore. Pretty much, they were like, “Here’s your mission, boys. See this valley? There’s two bases: one on one end of the valley and one on the other,” and the valley is about ten to twelve miles long, “You’re gonna live in this valley until it’s secure.” Which ended up being about 15 months. This place was called Peshawar.
Each platoon, which was about 100 people, would set up like a mile apart, we just camped out. We slept underneath our trucks for a couple of months until we started building hooches (fortified fighting positions that double as living quarters). So for about two or three months, stuff was pretty quiet. We were living off of ready-to-eat meals and bathing literally once every three weeks.
Then the shit started. They started fighting us like crazy. Every single day, direct fire—BOOM BOOM BOOM—total gun battles, RPGs, everything, every single day. It was crazy. It was like Vietnam.
It was like, if they shot from over there, we were going over there. We’d go over there, we’d get shot at again, we’d shoot at them, people were getting shot, soldiers were getting shot. There was a valley called Korengal Valley, which is known because of the movie Restrepo, which is a documentary.
Yeah, I saw that.
Yeah, so we built the base in Korengal Valley. And we were the ones that they replaced in the movie, that was our unit. And that place was fucking scary. You go in there, and you don’t know if you’re ever coming out. Afghanistan really effected me. Before, it was like, “This is so much fun!” and now it was like, people were getting blasted, kids are dying, it was just starting to scare me. I felt really stressed out by it, to say the least. I went into my leadership, and I was like, “I need a break or something,” and they sent me to the chaplain and the chaplain was like, “Oh, it’s just battle fatigue. You’ll get over it,” and I was like, "FUCK." We were there for 15 months. It was definitely a learning experience, but towards the end, I was like, “I need to get out of here or else I’m going to die.”
But being a practitioner of the occult, I did a lot of magic, a lot of spells to surround myself with a shield. I essentially thought of this white light that my mom taught me about, that worked as a shield, and nothing could penetrate it. I like to think that that contributed to a lot of the safety and coming back relatively unscathed.
So I got back, and got out of the army, and thought about moving back to New York City, but then Mac Mann and Maxamillion of Antioch Arrow and Jimmy Chin (Antioch Arrow roadie, man about town), were all living in Portland. I said to Jessy that I had never seen myself living in Oregon cos I always was a big city type of guy, so we decided to visit. When we got there, I just fell in love with it. The energy is just amazing, the creativity, the people are inspiring, friendly, and happy. So in 2007, I got out of the army and moved to Portland, Oregon.
…Okay…let’s backtrack for a second. Was your mom a practicing Wiccan? I don’t want to gloss over that.
My mom—I gotta say—had an extensive book collection and was all about horror movies, and aliens, but her MAIN jam is Egyptian magic, like Temple of Set. She was very much tuned-in to spirits and stuff, she was always encountering ghosts… So yeah, I was always inspired by that. She would write these little spells on her shoes, little things like that taught me how to create your own magic. She wouldn’t just open up a book and find a spell, she would be like, “I’m going to make my own spell, it’s more magical that way.” We still talk about it til this day—different kinds of witchcraft and how she sees it. She’s just highly influenced by Egyptian magic.
Okay…Okay, so you’re in Portland now.
Yeah, so I talked to Mac about wanting to play music. I had bought this farfisa organ, so I was like, “Let’s fuck around on this thing,” and stuff. He asked me what kind of music I wanted to play and I didn’t know. I liked pop music, and he’s avant garde, which is what I think made Antioch Arrow cool, 'cause he was playing this weird shit, and I’m just trying to sing along to it.
HSo he had this idea to do something that was like Suicide meets Roxy Music, which was planting the seeds for DBC. It of course doesn’t sound like that at all, but those were the main influences starting this band. We built this weird machine called “the Pulse.” I don’t know how it works, but it’s like a little pedal that connects to your synthesizer, and it goes through some feedback thing, and you can change the frequency. It creates this bass drone, low-end sound. So yeah, that bass drone you hear in my music is this fucking weird machine that Mac Mann built.
We were like, “Cool, this is a weird new sound," so we recruited Mark Burden, who was in Get Hustle at the time and who I wanted to play music with for years, and Sam Ott who also grew up in San Diego—she was in the Fucking Angels and Year Future. We just started writing weird songs, and Mac was having a hard time 'cause he wanted to write catchy type stuff or whatever, and he just did not know how to do it. He was really lost, and stressing out, because he said he didn’t know how to write stuff for people to actually follow. So I was just saying we should keep doing it, and uh, so we did it.
WE TOOK A BREAK FROM THE INTERVIEW AND THEN RESTARTED THE NEXT DAY.
Just for clarity and just to sort of keep us both from saying stuff we don’t necessarily mean, I wanted to revisit your comments about Afghanistan, because you had said it was a piece of shit country with nothing beautiful. I realize I’ve never served through, you know, being scared of shit, so I don’t want to be casting shade at you, but I did sort of want to address that as both of us have a lot of Afghan friends. Since it’s the Internet, I’d like to revisit that. I just wanted to clarify; you were talking about the terrain?
Well, when I say that, it’s not the culture OR the people, who are a part of pretty much the most interesting culture that I’ve experienced. They have their beliefs, you know? There culture is very traditional—conservative at times, and other times not so much. It’s a more complicated culture than I think people realize.
My lifestyle there was not the most comfortable. I mean, literally, we were living on a side of a rock across from people trying to shoot at us for 15 months. It’s just that in Iraq, I was in constant awe, and Afghanistan was much different, much harsher. The country is just full of really traditional, poor farmers. And I think the reason why that war has gone on for so long is that the money was being poured into Afghanistan by the government, so it was obvious that half of the society was really happy we were there because they were making money from it, whether it be from the Red Cross or schools, but also everyone, young farmers, whatever, is getting paid by either Pakistan or the Taliban to shoot at us. It was just a perpetual, everyday thing where they shoot at us and we shoot back. It didn’t really feel like there was much progress being made. It was just one of those situations of “Why are we here?”
I thought it was interesting when you said you were apolitical growing up, but seeing your posts via social media, it seems like—not that you’ve become super political—but that you have evolved a bit.
Well…you’re there, once you’re submerged into a situation, your politics have changed, because you’re seeing things from different perspectives, and it’s confusing. Growing up, I was in it a bit; I grew up in the hardcore scene, and the punk scene, so there were always people talking about politics, and the Man, and of course I believed in it, but it wasn’t my priority. As a soldiers, when you’re there, reading the news back home, everything effects your life, so when your friends are getting shot and stuff, you start to wonder what it’s all about. Especially in Afghanistan, being there for so long. We had some ideas, but all that stuff is higher up on the chain of command.
As far as the culture over there, it was so cool, and so old. They just pretty much live their lives the way they did 200 years ago, at least in the places I was at.
Yeah, sure. Like a lot of those countries, the intellectual classes get chased out.
Yeah, totally. And you know, I don’t want to bum anyone out by calling it a piece of shit country, and when I say that, I think of me living on a rock and looking at another rock and thinking, "This is a fucking wasteland, what am I doing here?"
Absolutely, I think that’s entirely reasonable. I wasn’t trying to shut you down.
I have nothing against any peoples, at all. We served with the Afghan army, and became friends with a lot of those guys, they were really cool—some spoke Pashtun, some spoke Farsi. They always wanted to share their culture with us. A lot of children from the village next to where we set up camp, they would come help us all the time. That was a good gateway to understand the people of that region, because the children spoke better English than most of the adults. That was a good gauge of where the people were.
Okay. Thank You. So…for an awkward segue, you’re living in Portland, you’re active in the noise and punk scene. It’s a scene that is both progressive and that can be knee jerk anti-liberal. You’ve fought, you’ve lived and seen the world in a way that most haven’t. Do you think you have a different perspective from your peers?
I would say so, definitely. It’s not something I talk about a ton, because I kind of get the feeling, and I could be wrong; it could be me feeling insecure, but I feel like a lot of my friends feel uncomfortable about me talking about the wars. It’s not something I talk about on a regular basis at all. I noticed that nobody really asks about it. It’s like my dirty little secret or something, which I don’t feel like it is, but I have a different perspective on things. And sure, Portland is liberal, but outside it’s all NRA stickers.
Idealism is everywhere, but when you’re in a situation that is life or death, idealism goes out the door.
Okay, so let’s go back to the start of Dangerous Boys Club.
I come back to civilian life, as they say, and the transition was a little bit funny, because in that situation of war and military life, it’s just a different lifestyle, which is what I needed at that point in my life. It didn’t involve the nightlife, or an art scene or anything, so as much as it was good for that reason, I wanted to get back to that, which is really my personality and the work I want to do.
So returning to civilian life was kind of strange, but I got to Portland and I already had a social friend group here already planted. I started parties, and DJ parties and stuff, and that’s when we started DBC. We played our first show on Halloween—2009, maybe? And from there, we just started writing music all the time.
We eventually put out our record—our first record which we wrote really quick so we’d have something to tour on. Nathan Howdeshall from the Gossip wanted to do our first record. He had money start a record label, and we were his first touring release. He was doing reissues, like what Dais was doing at first.
What’s the name of the label?
It’s called Fast Weapons.
He’s not the one from the Gossip who had the t-shirt “Punks throw rocks at cops?”
Yeah, that’s part of the same umbrella. Yeah, so we did that, and he also put out another band called Soft Kill, which is kind of a pretty cool band, kind of from everywhere. There’s a controversial figure named Toby Grave in the band. So yeah, we did a tour with them, which was cool, what with someone wanting to beat him up in every town. We came back to town, started writing more music, and playing shows here and there, like opening up for Cold Cave, Soft Moon, bands like that in our genre—I guess, like, dark wave?
We were getting involved with that scene, and our music was leaning more that way too. We became friends with Gibby Miller and Ryan Martin from Dais. They're old hardcore dudes, who were pretty much into the same stuff… actually Wesley from Cold Cave hooked us up with them for this new record.
We actually wrote a full record, and Dais was like, "We have a bunch of months before we can release, we’re backed up." This was about eight or nine months ago. In that time, we ended up writing a whole new record that we thought was more concise and the vision of what we were going for. Me and Mac are, like, obsessed with Blade Runner. This album is a little bit of an homage to that, as far as the seam of the record.
Oh that makes sense, you can sorta see it as the soundtrack to the city in Blade Runner.
Right, and on this record we have more soundtrack-y type stuff on it. The songs are pretty romantic and commanding… sexy. Sorta what I was going through at the time. Wanting more and more. Because in life, you have all this stuff, and you have nothing. I think at that point I didn’t have a lot. I was just trying to conjure this stuff, you know? Like a magician.
It ties in well with Alan Moore notion of magic…
Right, or even more Genesis P-Orridge. PTV was always an inspiration, using magic through music. I feel like Genesis is more ritualistic about it than I am, but this record is a conjuring for me of different things. I think in the lyrics, it’s sort of obvious.
There were certainly a lot of things that leapt out, like references to Transylvania. But I did like a lot of the occult stuff. It seems like a lot of people are using occult imagery, but that’s all there is. For you, it seems more like a lifestyle since you were a little kid.
It’s true. The occult imagery has always been sort of a thing, but it died out a bit and it seems to have made a resurgence, which I’m on the fence about. I’d rather see some dude on the street with a Pentagram than like, a Tapout shirt.
But there are some poseurs out there who are using the imagery, which is kind of corny, but I’d rather look at that….
It’s always that thing whenever, like, third-rate punk or grunge bands were on the radio, it’s like, “Well, I’d still rather listen to that than… hair metal.”
So the album is coming out when?
The album came out on the 9th of April. We just finished shooting our first video, which was really fun. I was a little nervous about it, but I always enjoy the experience. We always kind of do our first video ourselves—Mac Mann with the camera, and I help with the lighting. So the song is the single, “Tranzilvania,” which is a long song.
Yeah, it really is.
It’s a two-part song. The first part is the pop part of the song. I wrote the song about Portland 'cause it’s always kinda cloudy and gloomy here, which I enjoy. I like it. But yeah, I had the city that I live in in mind, and like, the power of the volcanoes, the power of the energy here. So the first part of the song is the pop section, and then it gets into this kinda psychedelic section with Joe Preston of Thrones does this really weird guitar lick thing. It’s become a sort of psychedelic dance song.
Then we’re doing a couple of shows down in California with Bronze in San Francisco and LA, and a band called Youth Code in LA, who are also on Dais.
Cool, are you coming out to the East Coast ever again?
Yes, we are. We need to make some money. Last time we went out there, we drove, which was awesome, but it was kind of a nightmare getting the gear out there. We’ll try to get there hopefully end of summer/early fall, and then to Europe as well.
In Blade Runner, who do you relate to more, Rutger Hauer or Harrison Ford?
Uhh, Harrison Ford. Because his heart is pure, but it doesn’t always show.
Thanks to Zohra Atash for transcribing.
- Noisey Blog