But a funny thing happens once I get Locust guitarist/co-vocalist Bobby Bray on the phone: He makes sense. Aside from an unusual objectivity toward his own species -- "Let me maneuver my human body to a better location," he says above nearby traffic noises -- Bray seems no more delusional than the next guy who lives in San Diego by choice. He speaks English, not binary code, and answers questions directly, without an insectlike trill or even a hint of sarcasm. Well I'll be.
Here he is defending the Locust's move to Anti, an arm of the über-punk umbrella label Epitaph, for the band's new release, Plague Soundscapes: "I think that people who try to stay as DIY as possible are definitely trying to combat this evil entity of corporations controlling art and music. So there's definitely a role for that. I just think that there needs to be more than just that."
That's the very picture of restraint for a member of a band that's endured heckling, slashed tires, and even death threats for daring to wriggle above the underground, first touring with the late major-label group At the Drive-In, and now as labelmates to platinum punks like Rancid and Pennywise.
"Go tweak yourselves to death, you rich, big-headed rock stars," suggests a recent piece of hate mail. "You are nothing but a bunch of image-concerned ass-wipes. By signing to Epitaph, you'll just end up destroying the Locust. Not that I have a problem with that."
While it's true that Epitaph is the punk scene's leviathan, swallowing practically every band that reaches a critical mass of popularity, the Locust is not just another punk group with its eyes on the Warped Tour's prize. Though it grew out of the aggressive and exclusive hardcore noise scene, this band transcends its peers, creating music that's harsh and grating, but also catchy, surprisingly artful, and, because it's all done with a kitschy wink, perhaps even accessible to a wider audience.
You'll get into some nasty record-store brawls claiming that "hardcore is dead." The author of the only authoritative account of the form, Steven Blush, in his American Hardcore: A Tribal History, placed the demise of the movement around 1986, provoking an online debate that may never end. It's safer and more accurate to say that, like Starbucks and the Holy Spirit, hardcore is everywhere.
The movement, which Blush calls "an infectious blend of ultra-fast music, thought-provoking lyrics, and fuck-you attitude," boiled down the original NYC and U.K. punk to bedrock, starting (er, arguably!) with Black Flag around 1980. Since then, it has had its way with all manner of metal and hard rock, sent the mosh pit stumbling into mass pop culture, and fractured into innumerable subgenres, one of which, "power-violence," birthed the Locust.
But to anyone acquainted with this extreme-hardcore habitat, the Locust might seem merely cute. Like Crispin Glover hanging out in a biker bar, the band's outlandish approach seems mild when placed next to its meaner, nastier peers': The Locust uses a Moog keyboard instead of perverse homemade electronics; its members come off as skinny art-punks rather than meaty metalheads; and they led the trend at the end of the '90s that found hardcore bands ditching the giant-trouser-wearing skater look in favor of color-coordinated getups.
While it may be "cute," there is something unnerving about the Locust, and it certainly isn't its B-movie horror aesthetic; nor is it the band's vocals, performed alternately by Bray, bassist Justin Pearson, and keyboardist Joey Karam, all of whom sound like the same guy getting stuck continually with a firebrand. What's scary is this: Listen to the quartet's splattering, 40-second "songs" enough times and they grab you like pop music, which is one hell of an accomplishment for tracks without melodies -- tracks with names like "Spitting in the Faces of Fools as a Source of Nutrition." The difference, however, between listening to conventional pop and what the Locust does is that instead of hitting "repeat" to hear a melodic hook, you do it to examine some infernal chirping that's been perfectly mingled with pummeling "blast beats." It's not unlike being fascinated by a particularly weird rash.
As otherworldly as all of this sounds, it has very distinct roots. A crucial ingredient in the development of the power-violence genre is the invention of blast beats, the simultaneous thwock of the bass drum and high-hat, followed by the crack of the snare, repeated at an absurd velocity. This unlikely acceleration of traditional hardcore, previously the fastest music on Earth, is partly the legacy of the scanty three-year run of San Diego's Crossed Out, saluted on Plague Soundscapes with a cover of the harrowing "Practiced Hatred."
Bray remembers seeing Crossed Out perform live in its early-'90s heyday, complete "with nonstop 16th beats, impossible to do physically. People with musical training would be like, 'Why are you doing that? That's not right.'"
"Actually, I thought it was pretty funny," he adds, "because I was really into technical death metal at the time, and when I heard Crossed Out, I was all, 'That's easy!' I sat down and figured out every song, just kinda played it and made fun of it. And then I realized, whoa, they're really pushing musical boundaries. It was just really brutal, almost blurring the line between reality and nonreality."
The other main ingredient in hardcore's progress through the past decade is one that was once about as appealing to most hardcore fans as Grace Jones: electronics. That changed gradually, starting in the early '90s when fringe hardcore bands began drizzling serrated machine noise into their sound, but with an agenda undiluted by the dance-mania of much industrial music. Such innovators were represented in Southern California by Pomona's now-defunct Man Is the Bastard.
"We were trying to do real soundscapes," says Aaron Kenyon, former bassist for Man Is the Bastard, which peppered its songs with the sounds of dissembled Hammond organs and deliberately fucked-up reel-to-reel tape recorders. "We'd ask, 'What does this horrifying [piece of electronic equipment] sound like?' It just had a natural effect on things in the underground, where after a few years we would notice a lot of bands coming up and the Locust happened to be one of those bands."
But the Locust's own innovation -- which might account for its major-label marketability -- is the fact that it's actually half-joking. Before this band, you wouldn't find intentional kitsch anywhere near the orbit of underground hardcore. To a world in which bluster and macho idealism once prevailed, the Locust brought postmodern nonsense, irony, and wacky bad taste. Take "Your Mantle Disguised as a Psychic Sasquatch," off of Plague Soundscapes, in which Karam screams about what "the foreskin knew" over shrill rippling noises and breakneck riffs as virtuosic as any jazz-fusion band. Or "Anything Jesus Does I Can Do Better," whose lyrics are uncharacteristically coherent: "Every day I add to the list of people who can kiss my ass/ And imagine Mr. W sucking the fuck out of it."
"If you don't have a sense of humor," says Pearson, "you're gonna end up being self-defeated really fast. You kinda have to laugh at things. Look at the world -- it is dark and absurd. What we create is a representation of the world we live in."
Live, the shtick translates to a hyperactive spectacle, performed with a sardonic, confrontational attitude in Boy Wonder costumes and stupid-looking bug-eye masks.
J.J. Jeffrey, drummer for the defunct Collision and veteran of the Southern California hardcore scene, recalls his first impressions of the Locust onstage. "The music was so extreme that it appealed to the most hardcore of hardcore people," he says, "but at the same time, their appearance was so fun and hip that they were self-mocking in a way. And I think their self-consciousness about it being so extreme made it fun."
"It's art, not just music," says Bray of the band's live presentation, "so every little small detail is related. It's what the Locust is: It's made mostly for the human ear, but humans have eyes too, so we just have to deal with that problem."
He cracks himself up, having referred to eyesight as a "problem." Personally, I'm just happy to get a dose of lucidity from such an eccentric. It's about the last thing you'd expect from a member of a subversive band about to spoon-feed Joe Public a writhing batch of brutal lunacy, straight from the fringe-of-the-fringe. Open wide. And take it with a grain of salt.