One trio of noiseniks can actually claim to being barred from gracing the legendary venue's stage for its decibel-shattering levels: these all-instrumental metal/dub luminaries.
Photo by Seldon Hunt
In the storied history of famously dingy downtown dive CBGB—birthplace of punk rock and home to hardcore matinees—few can attest to the sin of being too loud for that legendary and still-mourned Bowery music destination. But one trio of noiseniks can actually claim to being barred from gracing its dilapidated stage for its decibel-shattering levels: all-instrumental metal/dub luminaries Blind Idiot God. “We were supposedly the loudest band to ever play CBs. I think Hilly Kristal banned us—or didn't want us back after that—because a bunch of stuff fell out of the ceiling and he was worried we were going to blow out the PA. It's just because we don't have a singer so we can push things a little harder."
Andy Hawkins, mastermind riffmonger behind BIG's heavier than thou ecstatic sludge heroics, is sinking back a tall, cold one, reminiscing of nearly blowing CB’s roof to dust at a 1994 gig with his band’s sheer volume, an amps-cranked-to-11 assault that would make those notorious eardrum busters in Swans reach for the earplugs. These days, the bespectacled, scruffy and flannel flyin’ guitarist has tons to be stoked about. His nautically-themed (dude is an actual diver) watering hole ‘n’ grub hotspot Sea Witch is a South Slope, Brooklyn essential since opening in 2011 and Hawkins is preparing to wreak havoc with his six-string and amp arsenal once again. After being without a new slab o’ wax for twenty-three long years, Hawkins’ BIG—rounded out by new bassist Will Dahl and drummer Tim Wyskida (of doom metalists, Khanate)—have returned with the whopping 74-minute bruiser, Before Ever After. For its first new record since 1992’s Cyclotron, the Sunset Park-based guitorrists and SST Records vets’—BIG’s debut came out in 1987, the same year that SoCal label released the seminal trifecta of Sonic Youth’s Sister, I Against I by Bad Brains and Dinosaur Jr’s You’re Living All Over Me—merciless outsider avant-rock deconstruction is as meticulous and epically gnarly as ever.
But first a brief history lesson: After its beginnings as an instrumental hardcore band in St. Louis in ’82, BIG ultimately relocated to NYC in the mid-to-late eighties and with its entry into the Downtown avant-garde scene (according to Hawkins, they were the first rock band to play The Knitting Factory on Houston Street), the trio forged alliances with John Zorn (who cameoed on '88's Undertow) and longtime cohort bassist Bill Laswell, who returns to the BIG fold to twiddle the knobs as producer. On Before Ever After, these math rock-cum-doom metal-cum-reggae godfathers show no signs of dialing back the voltage as its thirteen stadium-size epics gloriously exact virtuosic riffage, groove-intensive dubcentric jazziness, and drums crush of the sonically heaviest order.
We “Trembled before ‘Wheels Of Progress’” when we premiered that track just recently and now we get the scoop on all things Blind Idiot God from Hawkins himself. Playing host at Sea Witch, Hawkins talked BIG’s ear bleeding, and unclassifiable aesthetic, not being dicked over by SST Records and why it took so long in between records.
Noisey: Welcome back. Did you guys actually ever break up?
Andy Hawkins: Good question. Not really. It might have seemed that way but no. After the first drummer quit, Ted (Epstein), I’d been living here awhile, and it seemed pretty hard to get things done here. I reconsidered the whole living here thing, and I moved to L.A. briefly (in the late 90s). My bass player, Gabe (Katz), was ready to move out there, to make the transition. We were, more or less, defunct for a year, year-and-change. But we had every intention of getting back together and making a go of it again. I couldn’ts that find a drummer (in L.A.) and then I got in a motorcycle accident and broke my back. I was like okay, I either have to stay here and buy a car and really commit to it, or go back (to New York). Everyone was like “you should come back” so I just came back.
Did you immediately start the band up again upon your return?
We were out of commission for like two or three years. We found Tim (Wyskida) but unfortunately Gabe developed some tinnitus problems so we had to stop for months at a time. I didn’t want to give up on Gabe because we’d been playing together since we were 15.
Bummer. There is that loud factor in BIG.
Yeah, I like to think of it as symphonically loud. It's not confrontationally loud like the Swans are but it’s still plenty loud. So, in point of fact, we were never really broken up but we were missing a drummer so we were laid up in dry dock for however many years that was (laughing).
And Before Ever After is your first record in…
This is the first one in over twenty years. And this thing with Gabe kept going until he left in 2010. We were almost done with the record but we ran into some other snags. It took like three or four years. This is the first time I’ve financed the whole thing myself.
You’ve started your own label, Indivisible, and are releasing it yourself?
Yes. I didn’t know who would put it out but I knew I’d have to pay for it. I realized everyone puts out their own records, so why not just do it. It was kind of a no-brainer.
Did you first look for a label to put it out?
Half-assed. And Laswell looked around and he couldn’t find anybody. He has enough trouble getting his own shit out. I remember when we were first starting out, There was kind of a stigma attached to putting out your own record—it just meant you were kind of lame. But there were 1/20 the number of bands there are now. We were treated poorly by most of the labels, with the sole exception of SST.
You were treated well by Greg Ginn and SST? That’s a first.
Yes! I got interviewed for a documentary on the label recently and the things I found out didn’t surprise me at all. They seemed to have a strategy…I would get these phone calls from Thurston Moore or Lee Ranaldo and they would be like “Did you get a check?” There were these quarterly checks that would go out and we got one. They would be like “We didn’t get a check and I don’t know what the hell is going on.” I would be like “That's weird.” I never came right out and said it but I would be talking to Greg Ginn or Chuck Dukowski and I’d tell them Thurston called me up and asked me about this (money) and they’d say “Oh, yeah. We can’t pay those guys right now because we need to get paid from the record distributor.” They would play these games, all these distributors. They wouldn’t give you money until you gave them new product so you get the money from the record before. It was a shell game. And then of course, SST’s record distributor went out of business. Just the shady record industry business. I guess SST had a weird policy of paying the little bands first (laughing).
How did you get on SST to begin with?
We sent them a tape and we also had opened up for Black Flag. So there was some feedback like “They are good. You should sign them.” So, I was in Boston in ‘85 going to music school and I got a postcard in the mail. It’s from Greg and on it was scrawled “Hey. Really liked the tape. Would you guys like to make a record?" It’s hilarious because I still have that postcard. I was looking for an excuse to drop out of music school and that was it.
And you opened up for the Minutemen at some point?
Funny story: We played with the Minutemen and we finished playing and it was our hometown, we had a good crowd and it was a really good show. And this was before we were signed by SST. As soon as we were done, George Hurley came up to me and goes "You guys are good but you're too fast, too fast. I can't figure out what's going on. You gotta slow down or something.” And then Mike Watt goes "And you're too loud. I can't hear." And then D Boon walks up and goes "Don't listen to these guys, man. You guys are great!" (Laughing). That was a very funny man. The chemistry was very unique in that band.
What about the dub influence in BIG? Did that come partly from Bad Brains, your SST label-mates from way back?
I actually really hated the Bad Brains dub. It's terrible, frankly, in my opinion. There is a Bad Brains dub record that is good that came much later. My reason for playing the dub is I found there to be a very interesting connection via the repetition and heaviness and the focus that sensibility had. I thought that it was applicable and we decided to apply ourselves to that. For me, I was lucky. I worked in a really, really good record store, probably the best record store I’ve ever seen in St. Louis called Vintage Vinyl. The owners were nut jobs and they didn't care if anything sold. They would order every domestic and import record, any weird punk rock record, any dub record, any blues record, any jazz record. They made a point of having everything they could get. The people who worked there were very fortunate; we got to listen to anything we wanted. I probably would not be the person I am today without that. I took to the dub thing very quickly because of that: the repetition and the minimalism.
But BIG started as a hardcore band without a singer? Where the hell did that come from?
Well, first of all I knew it would be difficult to find a good singer in St. Louis. Then, the more I thought about it, I didn't really want one. The musical ideas were what was most important, and I realized that if we had someone screaming over the din they would likely sound tortured, which would be distracting. The human voice has any emotional immediacy to it that can easily eclipse something so subtle as a musical idea. In my opinion, music in its ideal state is neither happy nor sad, nor really conveying any type of emotion. If I feel emotional listening to a great piece of music it's because someone's written a great piece of music, not because it's a conduit for someone's emotions. I don't know about anybody else, but I feel plenty of emotions, every day. I don't really need or particularly want people to trying so much to evoke them in me. For me, using music to express emotion is like using a howitzer to kill a fly: It ought not to be necessary, and it's a poor use of the resource.
Let’s talk about your being part of the Downtown experimental scene. Zorn appears on one of your records and Laswell had produced a few of your records, including Before Ever After. Did you feel part of that scene?
Not really. I don’t think we were weird enough. I don’t think people knew what to make of us and I was not surprised by that, in a way. I love all kinds of avant-garde music but we don’t do so much of it. The traditions, the noise thing Sonic Youth was a part of, Zorn and his group of improviser people…we never really fit in.
Where were you playing at that time?
CB’s and The Knitting Factory. We were actually the first rock band to ever play the Knitting Factory in ’87 or ’88. It’s the only place we ever cleared a room. That room was not good for loud sound. It was really only suitable for jazz and acoustic music. It’s a bad room to put a loud band in, in my opinion.
BIG does have that rep.
The sensational aspect of it, I mean there are people who are really loud that I’ve never really understood, like Dinosaur Jr: okay, but why so loud? I understand why the Swans are loud—that’s a presentation and it’s part of (Michael) Gira’s thing. But we were never loud in that rock and roll sense of just trying to confront people.
For your gig this weekend, is The Paper Box in Brooklyn equipped for your ginormous rig?
Yeah, I made sure we can fit on the stage. It’s going to be a little bit tight but they have a 12,000-watt PA.
Is that why you picked that place to play?
To a certain degree. It’s really weird, if you have a double bass drum set it takes a huge amount of real estate on a stage, anyway. We have 8 4x12 cabinets that we play through for each the bass and guitar.
In other words, we can expect the same earth-shaking loudness from BIG in 2015.
It’s less speaker cabinets but it’s still more than anyone else probably has. It’s still unreasonable.
BLIND IDIOT GOD celebrates the release of Before Ever After
Saturday, March 7th @The Paper Box in Brooklyn w/ Oneirogen, Rhyton and Gnaw