Just ask Rodney Mitchell, a guy who had been taking his lumps for years playing music in what he calls "nobody's underground," the limbo between obscurity and fame that most people know as the world of independent rock. Frustrated and finally fed up, he had what amounted to a nervous breakdown a couple of years ago: crying, punching mirrors, curling up in the fetal position on the bathroom floor, the whole thing. But at that precise moment, that lowest ebb in the tide of his life, salvation came. In a puff of sulfur, Lucifer, the Archfiend, King of Hell, materialized before him with pants around ankles and contract in hand.
Exactly one blow job and one sex change later, Rodney now known as Rhonda Delight was transformed into the biggest pop diva the world had ever seen.
The Faustian tale is from an album called Satan's Kickin' Yr Dick In: The Story of Rhonda Delight, a noise/hardcore/rock opera by the Bloomington, Ind., outfit Racebannon. At first glance, it would seem the opera is over before it's even begun: The cover of the CD is a picture of a fat lady singing, a beefy, platinum-blond chanteuse with a fur coat and streaked mascara wrapping her greasy red lips around a microphone. But look closer. That's no lady.
"That's our singer Mike as Rhonda Delight," says guitarist James Bauman in a warm, Wabash drawl that's not quite Great Lakes, not quite Dixie. "And that's him painted up as the devil on the inside of the CD, too. We wanted the record to have that androgynous feel. Mike's really into that kind of thing."
Bauman, Mike Anderson, drummer Brad Williams, bassist Chris "Sal" Saligoe, erstwhile "noise DJ" Dave Britts, and a roadie known only as Tank make up Racebannon, a group that has been emptying stomachs and filling underpants across the country for over six years now. Its schizophrenic opus from 2001, In the Grips of the Light, was a gorgeously chaotic wreck of an album. Still, it was a mere stretching exercise before the spazzcore decathlon that is Satan's Kickin' Yr Dick In. The record files Racebannon's toothier edges down to a single, scalpel-sharp point; hunks of Zorn-like improv and free-jazz pandemonium are crammed into the opera's complex structure. A trepan to the cranium would probably be more soothing.
"If it's hurting, it's working," states Bauman simply. "That's kind of our idea."
Speaking of hurting, few things in the world sound as painful as getting your dick kicked in by Beelzebub. But is the title of Racebannon's new album just a metaphor for being beaten up? Or is it a double entendre, some kind of dirty slang for Rodney/ Rhonda's forced gender conversion?
"Oh yeah, that's exactly what it is. The title works both ways like that," Bauman admits. "Rhonda was Rodney, a boy, and then Satan literally kicked his dick in and turned him into a woman. It's a classic tale of selling your soul to the devil to become a big star; we just followed that same kind of formula."
Of course, after Rhonda Delight becomes an A-list prima donna, things start hitting the fan. Succumbing to arrogance, avarice, and a boatload of OxyContin, she ultimately faces Satan once more when he returns to claim her as hell's own. It's a denouement of epic, even metaphysical proportions. All the while, Anderson rips the lyrics out of his throat in such a blood-gurgling panic, you'd think his words were chunks of barbed wire he'd just accidentally swallowed.
"We were really influenced by that more intense, screamy stuff," Bauman says, speaking of the wave of early '90s bands like Antioch Arrow, Honeywell, and Mohinder that injected brain-curdling screeches into a spastic, atonal mutation of hardcore. The sassy kids call it "screamo" nowadays, though the term has been jokingly circulating around the punk scene for years. "But with our new album, we wanted to make the music a little more aggressive, a little more metal, since Satan's involved."
Regardless of Racebannon's distant relation to screamo, Bauman is perplexed at the parallels drawn between his band and some of that style's trendier exponents such as the Blood Brothers and the Locust. "What separates us from those bands," he says, "is that we've never, ever wanted anything to do with image. We're just some dudes. It's our music that matters, and that's it. You see some of these new bands, and they sound like pure garbage. But their hair looks good. Everyone's taking lots of pictures."
True, the men of Racebannon are far from being paparazzi-hounded pinups. But their choice of Mephistophelean subject matter has created a certain friction between them and the media -- not to mention their own families. "When we get press, sometimes they can't print the title of our album in their magazines or newspapers," Bauman explains. "'Satan' by itself isn't really a bad word, and neither is 'dick.' I guess when you put them together, though, that's some bad news. It's like with my parents: They're totally religious, and since I was a little metalhead when I was a kid my mom always used to ask me if I worshipped Satan. When she first read about the new album, she was like, 'What's this? Satan's kicking your dick in? That's disgusting.' And that's pretty much where it stopped. She didn't want to talk too much about it. But that made it even more fun for me."
Bauman's love for agitating others, however, doesn't end there; in fact, he gets off on baiting his own audiences as much as he does his parents. "We thrive off of getting heckled," he confesses. "Usually when we're done with our set Mike will leave the stage, and we'll end with this huge wall of noise. I just keep going and keep going. Then the crowd starts yelling, 'You suck! You suck!' I'm just looking them in the face while I'm making more noise. That's kind of what we enjoy: pissing you off."
When it comes to pissing people off, the last person you'd probably want to get on the bad side of is Satan's old sparring partner, Jesus Christ. He is, after all, the ultimate Comeback Kid, a man known to pack a mean left hook and a hell of a posse a fact Racebannon is all too well aware of.
"We're really into finding Jesus now," Bauman comments soberly. "We've had a lot of problems with this whole Satan thing. We almost died in a horrible wreck on the first day of our last tour. All this bad shit was happening. So we're really going to try to do things right from now on.
"And we're not going to talk too much about Satan anymore," he adds. "We'll be playing songs off the new record on this tour, but we'll be thinking about Our Lord Jesus Christ while we're doing it."
Sure they will. When asked if he's being serious, Bauman replies in a sarcastic twang that pretty much epitomizes Racebannon's whole tongue-in-cheek, see-you-in-hell attitude. "Yeah, totally," he says, sounding as unctuously sincere as Satan himself. "Well, except for the Jesus part."