On first pass, Georgia's Dark Meat fits snugly into underground rock's current zeitgeist. Like Feathers and Espers and all those other hairy freak-folkies, it's a large quasi-hippie ensemble wrapped in a cultish aura. The 17 or so members are known formally as Dark Meat/Vomit Lasers Family Band/Galaxy, a name consciously modeled after Parliament-Funkadelic's love for cosmic-trickster nomenclature. Even better, they tour in a silver bus retrofitted with beds, a bathroom, and a kitchen nook.
So yeah, those Peoples Temple/Merry Pranksters vibrations are unmistakable. "We're very much a real collective," bassist and cofounder Ben Clack explains. He's phoning from the bus, which has just pulled off the interstate at the North Carolina–Virginia border with unexpected brake problems. A bandmate up front suddenly shouts to everyone to get off the bus. "We might have an emergency here," Clack warns. "But anyway, we pretty much live together by touring six months or so a year."
The members of Dark Meat also resemble those weirdos in Lightning Bolt and Friends Forever in the way their live shows are art-punk spectacles. Neon costumes and all manner of brightly colored stage ephemera swirl about like a drunken kaleidoscope.
There can be no doubt that all these avant-shenanigans have exerted a significant influence on the band. Dark Meat's inner core, as Clack points out, is a bunch of hard-core record nerds in love with obscuro-sounds both modern and old. But how these sounds are filtered is where the group's uniqueness shines through. Dark Meat, unlike the overwhelming majority of freak-folkies and noise-rockers out there, is a band of down-home Southerners. And, as is the case with nearly all underground musicians from the South since the '60s, they remain forever tethered to their roots: rural rock 'n' roll, Delta blues, New Orleans jazz, and country twang.
"We feel like a Southern band, and I love it," says Clack, now standing beside the bus, along with everybody else. "We live in the middle of nowhere. That's the way we like it." He then compares Dark Meat, which started out as a Neil Young covers band, to the Allman Brothers as well as free-jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler. Both, he explains, were playing "free shit, but coming at it from traditional roots music that everyone recognizes. I feel like that's what we're trying to do, too."
After repeated spins, Universal Indians (released in 2006 but recently reissued by Vice) reveals this intent. The disc, full of hypercharged Stooge-rock, is as punishing and claustrophobic as anything from Comets on Fire or Dead Meadow. Tracks such as "There Is a Retard on Acid Holding a Hammer to Your Brain" and "Assholes for Eyeballs" even recall the twisted psych-punk of vintage Butthole Surfers. Yet despite such gnarly song titles, Dark Meat is no sonic primitive. Its full horn and string section, the Vomit Lasers, can howl like a Dixieland band on PCP or bust airtight funk as if it's augmenting Booker T at a Memphis nightclub in 1964.
The same goes for the Sub Tweeters and Key Bumps, backup singers and percussionists and flag corps, respectively. Both subsections help transform Dark Meat's wild-ass stage show into a kind of postapocalyptic Mardi Gras. On record, however, they serve as key musical components, infusing the band's manic rock 'n' roll with authentic white gospel ecstasy.
Ultimately, Dark Meat is that rare band that can sum up the entire history of rock 'n' roll in a single song, erasing divisions between subgenres with every howling riff. According to Clack, this ability to put it all together is another Southern trait. And while that's certainly true, it also makes Dark Meat a truly democratic band at a time when democracy in America is a hard thing to come by.
So get on the bus ... once it's fixed, of course.