Heavy Trash – Alarm: Cover/Feature (PRESS, US)

12 November 2007 Alarm Issue #28
Heavy Trash - Alarm: Cover/Feature (PRESS, US)
Fall 2007 issue (#28) of Alarm magazine features a Heavy Trash cover and article.

Alarm Press: http://www.alarmpress.com/

“There it is in my e-mail inbox, in all caps, the crux of the matter from Jon Spencer: “I HAVE NO SOUL AND MY HEART IS BARREN. MY WORDS ARE EMPTY AND FALSE.” Spencer, one half of Heavy Trash and the titular man of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, is explaining why one critic described him as a “mendacious con man.”

But this answer is, of course, a con. Spencer’s got soul. His heart is not barren. His words aren’t empty, although they may sometimes be false. In fact, it’s his other musical half, Matt Verta-Ray, who has the charming, fast-talking demeanor of a con man. Spencer, in person, is almost distressingly straightforward.

Collapsed on ratty couches in their basement recording studio on the Lower East Side, Spencer and Verta-Ray are answering a few questions in their down time. They’ve finished with the recording and mixing of their sophomore album, Going Way Out with Heavy Trash, and are trying to find time to breathe before the accompanying tour.

Seated together now, they look like two different artists’ renderings of the same basic idea: the dark-haired, lanky rockabilly dude. The Verta-Ray version is baby faced and slick; he looks like a rockabilly Morrissey. Spencer looks a little more frayed around the edges, but they’re both sharp-dressed men.

“There are millions of Italian silkworms toiling away in Milan and Rome,” explains Verta-Ray, “making those shimmering fabrics to be custom-sewn into suits for me and Jon. I personally don’t have the heart to disappoint them all by wearing anything else. I even wear sharkskin condoms. Ladies?”

Verta-Ray and Spencer are both products of the ’70s, a time when mainstream rock was tilting toward the bloated and the “prog.” Their love of rockabilly was at least in part a reaction to that climate.

“The grittiness of the delivery and the subject matter [of rockabilly] made all of Led Zeppelin’s wailing about hobbits and Mordor and stuff seem pretty lame,” says Verta-Ray.

So instead they mixed rockabilly with punk; the results were the crazed, revved-up howlings of Verta-Ray’s Speedball Baby and Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion. From rockabilly, they took the basic sound; from punk, they drew confidence and a willingness to experiment.

The big lessons [from hardcore music] were [that] you can have a band, you can make a record, do it yourself, put it out, go out on tour. Get in the van.

“I think that hardcore taught me a lot,” says Spencer. “It wasn’t my favorite kind of music, but the big lessons were yeah, you can have a band, you can make a record, do it yourself, put it out, go out on tour. Get in the van. At a certain point I didn’t want to do anything else.”

Eventually, moving in the same subculture of tattooed pyschobilly shows, they took notice of one another. “We both could tell the other’s influences,” says Spencer. “We knew that we shared a lot of common ground.”

“We both had some down time, started writing songs and playing together, but no one was calling it a band yet,” adds Verta-Ray. “And since we have the studio, before we knew it, there was an album. And then we named the band.”

The first, self-titled Heavy Trash record came out on Yep Roc Records in 2005. (Yep Roc, based in Chapel Hill, has become the home for the modern rockabilly/pyschobilly scene with a roster that includes Southern Culture On The Skids, the Reverend Horton Heat, Dexter Romweber of the Flat-Duo Jets, and the Legendary Shack Shakers.)

The rockabilly/swing subculture has waxed and waned in popularity over the years, seeing occasional breakouts into the mainstream (The Stray Cats, Brian Setzer) and always being available as a proudly stylish, parallel way of life — one with, in general, a friendlier attitude than the sometimes exclusive genre of indie rock.

For both artist and audience, it’s more openly about putting on a show (as Verta-Ray points out) than about a sense of slacker cool. Because they evoke a more innocent era, the new rockabilly crowd is also able to toy with being sleazy. They can be suggestive again. It’s much more fun than being overt — in the same way that James Bond movies are sexier than porn.

“I remember the rockabilly sound kind of popping out from everything else around at the time I was first exposed to it,” says Verta-Ray, “and feeling that there was something real there that was not happening in AM radio or disco or heavy album rock, all of which was in style then. I can kind of pick apart the feeling of rockabilly’s appeal for me and put it down to slapback delay, relatively home-made recording techniques, tube technology, rebellious youth energy, and cool black and white pictures of greasy hepcats.

“But at the time, I didn’t even know there was a term for it and naturally just gravitated to Luther Perkins’ solo in ‘Get Rhythm’ or Buddy Holly’s sound on ‘That’ll Be The Day’.”

If you’re presently on a musical diet of hyper-literate singer/songwriters, electronic noise-shapers, and remixes of remixes, it can be jarring to listen to the first notes of Going Way Out. It’s a primitive, forgotten pleasure. This music has been at the base of most pop for the past fifty years; it’s so fundamental that it’s hard to imagine anyone actually creating it. The music is so straightforward that you can easily think, “I could do this.” A little ringing guitar, a little echo, some hiccupping-Hank Williams vocals, and you’ve got a song. But simplicity is not always easy.

“It’s kind of like haiku,” says Spencer. It’s a testament to Heavy Trash that they make good rockabilly sound effortless. There are plenty of bands working in this area, but there are very few that create albums as good as Going Way Out. It’s easy to write haiku; what’s hard is writing good haiku.

In fact, if you dig back through catalogs of classic rockabilly, there isn’t much that will have this same shiny appeal. Heavy Trash is rockabilly as a fan re-imagines it, not so much as it actually was. It’s to their advantage that they’re too musically restless to be purists.

Rather than making a meek echo of classic music, they’ve used a love of rockabilly to fuel their own uniquely modern songs. Just because they’re playing rockabilly-inspired music doesn’t mean they don’t exist in today’s world. Spencer worked with such non-rockabilly types as Martina Topley-Bird and DJ Shadow on The Blues Explosion’s 2004 album, Damage.

Their love for an old style gives their songs more space and dynamism than many often dense and overproduced modern efforts, but they’ve also got more thump and muscle than old rockabilly. Heavy Trash have fifty years’ worth of music to draw on that wasn’t available to Carl Perkins. Rockabilly couldn’t have been like this until now, and it couldn’t be like this even now without terrific songwriters.

The album title Going Way Out, besides evoking the hepcat albums of the fifties and sixties, seems like a declaration of intention: they will go all the way out with this style, pushing the twang, the reverb, and the stylized vocals as far as possible. Their sound has gathered focus and depth since their debut; Going Way Out launches with a confident line of surf guitar and holds you in a weird, glittering rockabilly netherworld for forty-one minutes.

The album includes dramatic rockers with shuffling, stop-start rhythms, one loping, dreamy number (“Crying Tramp”), an homage to “Summertime Blues” (“Crazy Pritty Baby”), and a long, trippy groove to close it out (“You Can’t Win”). Crackling, sparse, and dangerous, this music would seem right at home in a Sergio Leone film.

This brings up a difference between Heavy Trash’s debut and Going Way Out that, at first, is difficult to identify. The debut — simply titled Heavy Trash — showcased their skill and imagination, but didn’t quite come fully to life. This could be partly because although both men were veteran performers, the duo Heavy Trash at that time had never played live.

After the release of Heavy Trash, they began to play shows, and they’ve barely stopped since. They’ve even developed backing bands on both sides of the Atlantic, playing with the Sadies here and touring Europe with Danish bands Powersolo and Tremolo Beer Gut (respective band mottos: “Like a swift kick in the balls and a crack pipe in the morning” and “Here to put the URF! Back in surf”). Trying to grab hold of an audience night after night may be what gave Heavy Trash the sense of timing and drama that’s so evident on Going Way Out.

Performance, in other words, brings the best out of Heavy Trash — not surprising, since Spencer has always put on a good show. That “con man” rep is mostly due to Spencer’s stage antics, as Verta-Ray explains: “One of the really cool things the Blues Explosion did was to re-embrace the James Brown show-band sense of theater and spectacle at a time when musicians were pretending to be so humble they had no style or attitude.

“It’s like when Dylan started wearing eyeliner and hanging out with Nico. Well, Phil Ochs got pissed. Daring to be a performer and to accept the difference between the person in the spotlight and the audience member is really what everyone in that situation wants after all, isn’t it? And if one can do it and have fun, let the audience in on the humor of it and let ’em go home feeling they’ve been elegantly conned, well, who’s going to be mad about that?”

On stage, Spencer is transformed into a creature that’s part carnival barker, part Elvis, and part Screaming Jay Hawkins. He throws his scarecrow frame into deep knee bends, forms a series of implausible angles with the microphone stand, and hiccups bizarre asides into the mic. Beside him, Verta Ray is the picture of guitar cool.

(Through the magic of YouTube, you can watch their activities of June and July, as various low-ceilinged clubs across Europe seethe with the contagious energy of Heavy Trash. All the videos were shot from dance floor POV, so the frame is packed with frenzied fans. About thirty seconds into each song, Heavy Trash often disappear into the jostle.)

The album closer on Going Way Out is a strange song worthy of Captain Beefheart. The vocals fade in and out, swirl around, layer on top of each other, speed up and slow down, and are all set to a crawling groove that never quite lets go.

Spencer growls out a beat-poet style rant that becomes an ode to the rockabilly scene: “I remember when these crying tramps were king, when wild gyrations ruled, pumped so full of reverberation, treble, so high on the slapback, drunk on pomade, lemonade, lime rickey, cherry wine, and Pepsi-Cola.”

None of this ever really quite existed, or, when it did, it wasn’t as magical as Heavy Trash make it sound. They’ve re-imagined a bygone era and made it better.

– Story by Tom Vale”