How Dazzling Killmen Merged Avant-Garde Jazz and Punk Fury
Unlike legendary scene hotbeds like New York, Chicago, L.A. and Seattle, St. Louis is a city that doesn’t get its just due in the annals of the American independent punk underground. The catch is, St. Louis did play host to criminally overlooked scenes. There was the then-mushrooming hardcore scene, led by the scuzzy likes of Drunks With Guns; the seeds of alt-country legends Uncle Tupelo were planted in the St. Louis area; and it’s where long running, all-instrumental, slow-burning metal / dub pulverizers Blind Idiot God got their start.
Now another trailblazing band — albeit a defunct one — is doing its part in further cementing St. Louis on the music map. Dazzling Killmen — the punk, free jazz and noise-rock-obsessed brainiacs that flew under the radar in the early-to-mid-'90s as they helped usher in myriad movements, including math-rock, math-metal and prog-core, all the while defying classification — are experiencing a rebirth of sorts.
Face of Collapse, the Killmen’s Steve Albini-recorded second and final album —originally released in 1994, and a crucial touchstone in their all-too-brief canon — has undergone the reissue / remaster treatment, capturing their cataclysmic, spazzed-out post-hardcore brilliance in all its tormented glory and sonically mind-bending razor sharp-precision. Similar to their like-minded brethren in Cleveland’s technically progressive outsider outfit Craw, the Killmen — guitarist / vocalist Nick Sakes, guitarist Tim Garrigan, bassist Darin Gray and drummer Blake Fleming — operated without the heavyweight cred and championing provided by mover ‘n’ shaker labels like Sub Pop, Touch & Go and Amphetamine Reptile. Despite little pull, the Killmen have amassed influential heft over the subsequent years, even as their trailblazing output ('92’s Dig Out the Switch and '94’s FOC) remained hard-to-find gems in the math-metal pantheon.
Now, thanks to the resurrected sponsors of all things noise and art-rock (and early label home), Skin Graft Records, the newly reissued gatefold-sleeve double LP for Face of Collapse — complete with a treasure trove of love for the Killmen, including a 16-page book and an oral history compiled by super-fan and music scholar Hank Shteamer with new artwork, comics and bonus tracks — affirms its grip as a seminal recording in the '90s-era underground.
CLRVYNT got hold of Sakes, Fleming and Garrigan to recount the history of the Killmen and the recording of Face of Collapse at Steve Albini’s studio.
St. Louis wasn’t exactly known as a musical hotbed when Dazzling Killmen were active, with the exception of Blind Idiot God. What was the scene like back then?
Nick Sakes: I went to see a lot of hardcore shows, and there was one band called Ultraman that had records out on labels and did tours and regular band stuff. Tim Jamison, the singer for Ultraman, was really helpful, and got us tons of cool shows, like opening for Fugazi and the Accüsed and Ultraman, of course. Personally, I hung out a lot with Uncle Tupelo. I was always going to out-of-town regional shows with them in their van, just tagging along. St. Louis had always been pretty empty on the local band front. I started to get really antsy thinking about starting something and then opening for all the touring bands I saw playing live. Having seen Uncle Tupelo and being around Darin’s old band, Culture Shock, [was] a real lesson on how to do it — all the little stuff, like how to book a show, the van, where to get equipment.
Blake Fleming: St. Louis has always had a pretty diverse and vibrant music scene, from the big band era to the present. Around the time the Killmen formed, there were a lot of cover bands and some leftovers from the '80s hair metal scene. Some alt-country bands were starting to surface, as Uncle Tupelo were gaining in popularity on a national level, and bands not too different from what would become the Seattle grunge scene a few years later were starting to pop up, too. Classic hard rock mixed with some punk roots or country mixed with punk were definitely the flavors of the day.
There was a definite void for further-reaching music during this period, and the Killmen somewhat unknowingly stepped in to fill it. We were aware that what we were doing was different, which we definitely took some pride in, but it also led to us feeling musically isolated. The basic synthesis — and this was not completely conscious — was to take the intensity and integrity of bands like Black Flag and the Minutemen and combine it with the shape-shifting musicianship of jazz and the avant-garde.
Speaking of Blind Idiot God, how crucial was Andy Hawkins' band on you guys, considering they came out of St. Louis and were successful in terms of getting on SST Records and working with someone like Bill Laswell?
NS: They were … I guess sorta crucial, in a way. I did see them a few times live, and it was always a bit of a mess. Terrible sound systems, and the band itself sounded like a huge blur, and then some reggae. They would get a lot of opening slots for bigger punk shows, like Battalion of Saints, Die Kreuzen and Samhain, and the kids just hated them. Yelled. Booed. And Andy would have temper fits on stage and stop the song and start over. It was messy. Years later, when I actually had their album, I fucking LOVED them. Our friend Miles Rutlin, who did the painting for Dig Out the Switch, also did the cover art for BIG’s SST album. A band from St. Louis getting on SST was a big deal, in my opinion. The gold standard!
BF: BIG were definitely kindred spirits, and a band that was talked about inspirationally. We shared an aesthetic of wanting to take rock music somewhere else — somewhere new, hopefully. We also had a common friend and champion in the great visual artist, Miles Rutlin, who has done cover art for both BIG and the Killmen. Miles, sadly, passed unexpectedly at the criminally young age of 26. We dedicated most things we did afterward to him. He was a brother to us.
I read that Nick started the Killmen as a result of a "late 20s crisis." How did the band originally form?
NS: I wanted to learn how to make noise and bar chords on my guitar, and talked Darin into showing [me] how to do it. In these basement hangouts, the idea of writing riffs happened, and then the riffs. Then he mentioned knowing this drummer guy named Blake from school. And that’s it.
Nick, was that period when the Killmen started a difficult period in your life? It certainly sounds like you were going through some heavy shit, or just coming from a hardcore upbringing.
NS: Definitely heavy things were happening. I was in a rough time of my life living with my dad in my mid-20s and working my shitty jobs, sometimes working with him. He was a looming abusive figure, and I felt like I was held captive. I never really felt totally free from him until he died seven years ago, to be honest.
Blake and Darin were jazz students, and, according to the oral history, super-heavy into jazz. Was there a conscious effort to meld elements of avant-garde jazz into what the Killmen ultimately did?
BF: I don't think it started out as a conscious effort melding elements of avant-garde jazz into the music. Things were just coming out in our playing subconsciously based on what we were listening to, almost by osmosis. I think later it was easier to look back and then make these assessments. At the time, we were creating a new road map with and for each other, and just playing what came naturally.
The very first time Nick, Darin and myself all played together was when they had showed me the music for our first single, “Numb,” and what you hear on the record basically came from what happened the first instant we played. The moment the tribal tom beat of the drums kicked in, the three of us just looked at each other while playing with this kind of "holy shit" look on our faces. Nick and Darin had found the other puzzle piece, and we all knew it instantly.
What did the three of you initially bond over?
BF: I think we bonded over that first rehearsal. There was a power and fusion of parts that created something bigger than we anticipated. We had all discovered something new together. That was the first layer of glue.
Nick, where were you coming from? Were you into the same jazz?
NS: The only jazzy stuff I liked was Last Exit and Naked City, really. I was never too much into jazz. I still like a few things, but I don’t connect with much of it.
I hear similarities between the Killmen and Craw, and both bands were active around the same time. Can you talk about your kinship with Craw and flying under the radar in the early-to-mid-'90s, where the underground popularity of math-rock, noise-rock and post-hardcore was at its height?
NS: There was just so much to choose from. So many distractions. Touch & Go, AmRep, Sub Pop — all those bigger labels seemed always a few steps ahead of us. I’m okay with it, though. The type of music we played couldn’t appeal to a lot of people. I just don’t see it happening. It was exhausting, dark, cathartic stuff. Not fun at all. We never had big crowds, and most bands we like that we played with never had much of a live following. I think it’s always like that with dark, weird stuff.
BF: We first heard about Craw from Nick, who was going back and forth to Cleveland for work, I believe. The first time we played with them at the Euclid Tavern in Cleveland, there was a definite camaraderie both musically and personally. We were all pretty normal-looking Midwestern guys, unpretentious and even nerdy, who had this Clark Kent / Superman relationship with the stage. We kind of prided ourselves on looking normal and unremarkable and then becoming these superheroes on stage. Both bands, Craw and the Killmen, have gained in popularity since breaking up — a bit of the unfortunate Van Gogh Syndrome, I guess. I'm very happy to see Craw getting more of their much deserved recognition.
Let's talk about Dig Out the Switch vs. Face of Collapse. In the oral history, you guys don't have kind words for the sound of the first record. What changed in the subsequent time between the two records and how the band evolved in those couple of years?
NS: Tim Garrigan joined the band and it became a new band. He and Darin were roommates and spent a ton of time working together on music that would become a lot of Face of Collapse. Tim, Darin and Blake all played music together in college in the day, too. It added up.
BF: I personally have never been too thrilled with the sound of any of our records until this reissue. A big part of that was time — which there was never much of in the studio — mixed with inexperience. None of us were veteran studio musicians at that point, and didn't really know much about the process at the time. We literally just set up and played. I love the songs on Dig Out the Switch, but the sound leaves something to be desired. I also felt the same way about FOC. The sounds always seemed muted, muffled and separate, but that's what can happen when you do the entire recording / mixing process from start to finish in four days on a record of musically epic proportions. I'm very happy this reissue is coming out.
Tim, how did it go down that you came aboard as the second guitar player in the Killmen?
Tim Garrigan: I first met Blake in jazz camp the summer prior to our college freshman year in the same jazz department. We became friends as music enthusiasts and played together a bit. The following year, our sophomore year '91-'92, I met Darin through Blake, and we three started playing together in an electric "avant"-leaning jazz trio, in addition to our school assigned “jazz combo,” which also included a pianist who'd been a member of the '60s Black Artists Group. Darin and Blake had already been playing a lot of Coltrane and Miles tunes together outside of the Killmen. We played stuff mostly [that] Darin recommended: James Blood Ulmer, Universal Congress Of, Sun Ra, Miles and Coltrane tunes, and we were listening to Sonny Sharrock. Then they introduced me to Nick, and I sat in with them during a Killmen practice, just improvising to see how that felt and possibly playing through a song or two of theirs. Nick thought I played like a “saxophone player.” [Laughs] So, then they invited me to be a “musical guest” on what was to be the “Medicine Me”/ “Poptones” single, and that went well, so they asked me to join.
Was it a seamless transition for you to join the Killmen?
TG: Well, initially, as a “musical guest” for the single, there was less pressure, I guess. They didn't mind anything I played, but when I was asked to join, that meant learning a lot of their prior material, which was a bit arduous, because I really wanted to do it right and it wasn't like the music I'd been playing.
What did Tim, as a second guitar player, bring out in the Killmen?
BF: Tim brought about a harmonic depth that was not present in the previous Killmen releases. Through Tim and Darin living together during this period, they fed off of each other and pushed each other to take the music to new places compositionally. We were all growing individually, and as a unit as well.
When you went into Steve Albini's studio to record Face of Collapse, had you guys been practicing like crazy, honing all the insane time signatures? In the oral history, you talk about knocking the songs out on first takes, so I imagine you knew the songs backwards and forwards to pull off all the start / stop complexities.
NS: Yes, definitely a lot of hours and repetition. We practiced all the time. Here’s a fun fact: We rarely, if ever, practiced with vocals. Sometimes we’d mention it in practice and I’d say, “Yeah, yeah. I have lyrics. I’m getting there,” and then at the time we recorded the basic instrument tracks, it was time for my vocal takes the next morning. I had my notebook with some words and phrases and a little here and there. So, really early, I got up alone and just got in this state of panic, I suppose, and just put it together in my head and on paper. I pretty much had a good idea in my head what I wanted to do, but I never heard it until that day.
BF: Yes. It was the only way we could hope to record or perform that material. We practiced incessantly. We were devout at that point, and were on a mission both as a band and personally to see how far we could take things. I wish we had video of some of those rehearsals, because they were intense.
Face Of Collapse came out the same year as Shellac's At Action Park, and Face certainly has a "Shellac vibe," as well as that Albini recording / sound stamp. What made you decide to record with Albini? Craw had recorded with Albini already at that point, as had dozens of other bands, obviously.
NS: I had tried to contact Butch Vig because we liked those Killdozer albums and some other stuff he recorded, but Steve was closer and cheaper.
TG: Of course Face of Collapse has the Albini stamp recording-wise, which I am certainly grateful for. But as far as having a “Shellac vibe,” with all due respect, we had written all of the material for Face before Shellac's first single even came out. In fact, we were stuffing records for their first single during the recording of Face, but that's merely coincidental. At Action Park was actually recorded after Face, in all fairness, but I'm happy to be associated with anything Steve Albini has done, and his work is monumentally generally influential, if not specifically.
BF: I think the biggest thing we felt for Steve was respect. He was known for his honesty and integrity, and we had all been fans of Big Black and Rapeman.
You recount some great stories in the oral history, like helping put together Shellac 7" covers to offset some of the recording costs of Face. Did you save a decent chunk of change doing that?
BF: Putting together the “Rude Gesture” and “Uranus” 7"s for Steve was really fun for us. It was a way to relax and decompress in the evening after working all day in the studio. Most of the brown "root beer" smears on those records were made by one of us. I don't know how much it helped financially, but I know he worked with us on the money end to make it possible.
Another good one was you guys being there at Steve's studio recording Face when Nivana's In Utero showed up, and he didn't know his mixes weren't used and he wasn't too pleased, as you recall. What are your recollections of that day? Did he lose his shit?
TG: I do recall, of course, the In Utero listening “party.” [Laughs] No, the first copies came to Steve's doorstop while we were sitting on the couch stuffing records, and I just recall Steve putting the record on and within a few seconds exclaiming, “This sounds like a fuckin' beer commercial!” [Laughs] So, he took us up into his control room to listen to his mix, which sounded uncompromising and phenomenal. But, yes, that was some rock history witnessed firsthand. Steve was nothing but a consummate professional. I can't see him losing his head over anything, really.
BF: I'll never forgot that day when a vinyl copy of In Utero showed up at Steve's. We, of course, had never heard the record at that point. Hardly anyone had. Steve put it on his stereo in the living room of his house and cranked it. We were all like, "Shit, this sounds fucking great," except for Steve, who pretty instantly became a bit enraged and literally yanked it off the platter and threw it across the room, yelling something. He then asked if we wanted to hear what it was supposed to sound like, his original mixes from his DAT tape, and we were like, "Hell, yes!" So, we followed him up into the attic where the control room was and proceeded to be jaw-dropped at witnessing something that we knew was musically and historically significant at that moment. We all knew the controversy surrounding that record, and here we were listening to the untouched Albini mixes with Albini himself! We all knew at that time that we were witness to something very special. We were also there one time when he and the Jesus Lizard were deciding the sequencing of songs for Goat in the evenings after we had worked for the day. I'm not sure what sessions we were up for that time, but listening to the original DAT mixes of that record with Steve, Duane [Denison], David Yow, David Wm. Sims and Mac [McNeilly] was also something I'll never forget. That was historic for me, for sure.
Blake, you remastered Face along with Andris Balins, and Jason McEntire did the analog tape restoration. Working on the remastering 20-odd years later, did you discover anything about the record and the sound that you weren't really aware of before?
BF: No. There were no new discoveries in that sense, because Andris and myself were only working with the stereo masters at that point. I think Jason McEntire got to see a bit more behind the curtain, though, because he was transferring the separate multi-tracks for each song, which means he got to hear individual isolated tracks, which I imagine were full of information pertaining to the making of FOC. The digital transfer of the analog tapes actually helped the original sound quite a bit, in that sonically, everything is more congealed than before.
Tim, what do you think you brought to the band that the Killmen didn't have as a trio?
TG: Well, as far as playing on the Dig Out the Switch material and such, just having two guitars obviously increases the guitar density. But I also expanded chordal range / colors by playing certain parts in lower and higher registers at times, depending on what Nick was playing or wasn't playing. I also added subtle dissonances at times. I was more of a technical guitarist than Nick, who had a super cool way of playing the guitar, including use of unusual chords, textural dissonances, etc. But I was using the guitar more fundamentally as a rhythmic instrument for his songs / singing. I could just concentrate on executing the guitar playing as tightly and powerfully as possible and vary melodic / harmonic / rhythmic approaches.
What is it about jazz students playing this hybrid of noise-rock, hardcore and math-rock like the Killmen did? Tim, were you into the same avant-garde jazz stuff as Blake and Darin?
TG: Well, I was already starting to get heavy into jazz: Miles, Coltrane, Monk and 20th century classical Stravinsky, etc. But Darin was really into a lot of avant-garde stuff, a very wide range, and I progressively got into more and more through Darin; and also Blake, of course, who initially turned me on to Sonic Youth, Jesus Lizard and older punk stuff; and also, the school music library had some great weird Harry Partch records, Ornette Coleman — who Darin was crazy about — Stockhausen and John Cage. Nick also turned me on to a lot of weird and good punk and rock stuff: Captain Beefheart, Velvet Underground and Big Black. All those guys turned me on to tons of music spanning genres: film, literature and art.
Darin and I shared a rented house the year I joined the band — right across from an oil refinery, no less, with a burning flame prominently visible at all times day / night and an accompanying noxious smell of gas. That was inspiration. [Laughs] Darin had tons of records, so I had access to a lot, and we worked on a lot of stuff together. The interest in many things / influences grew quickly. None of us had anything to do, really, but obsess on music!
Craw reunited for a brief stint of shows last year. Do you foresee the Killmen playing any reunion shows to celebrate this release?
BF: Let's hope so. That would be ideal. I'm hoping to expand our audience, and also to cement the place of the Killmen historically. I doubt there will be any reunion shows. Logistically, it seems to be a rather daunting task. It would be pretty fucking cool, though! Show us the money.