SOUTHWEST SOUND AND FURY: A Short Overview of Indie and Punk in New Mexico

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A look at one of the more underappreciated and underexposed punk scenes in the U.S., originally published in the most excellent Dagger zine.

BY DAVID ENSMINGER (Special Thanks To Jobrian Stammer)

By and large, New Mexico is a wind-swept, arid slice of the U.S. known as the home to the nuclear bomb; vast white sands; an occasional gritty city; stretched-out Albuquerque, the notorious backdrop to Breaking Bad; uber modern popsters The Shins; and hot-pounding drummer extraordinaire Randolpho Francisco “Randy” Castillo, from Ozzy Osbourne and Motley Crue. It has nonetheless produced a startling punk community, especially from the 1990s until today.

In the 1960s, frat-rock, big beat, and garage nugget style music held some sway, in which King Richard and the Knights instrumental surfy forays broke through the din, while The Kreeg offered up desert-rock tuneage and Fe-Fi-Four Plus 2 unleashed psychedelic noodling.

Flash forward a few decades, though, starting with the time that band like Jerry’s Kidz electrified the state at joints like B&M (behind a lock shop), where Conflict from Arizona would stop by for insurgent gigs in 1983.

That same year Jerry’s Kidz released their opus “Well Fed Society,” a well-produced, manic, guitar-slathered, incisive EP (sonically resting between Secret Hate, Los Olvidados, and the F.U.’s) on Test Site; the fine-lined horror punk graphics by Jaime Trujillo (who sketched for Mutual Oblivion zine too) are grim, death-teeming, and memorable as Pushead, firmly within the skate-punk aesthetic (a shreddin’ skeleton leers on the back cover), while the tunes like “Marionetts” and “DWI” are smoldering bash’n’rock embodying frantic pre-hardcore rage and rigor. Check out the cut’n’paste images of E.T, skate crews, and the band in action on the insert. Singer David Duran soon joined Clown Alley, legendary mid-1980s Bay Area metal-punk provocateurs featuring Lori Black (later of Melvins fame), the daughter of Shirley Temple, who released Circus of Chaosfor Alchemy Records.

On the new wave and power pop spectrum, The Philisteens, a slightly geeky but fluid and focused power trio unit, were tightly coiled and electrifying, producing tuneful, hi-energy fare that reminds one of agile Code Blue meets a meatier version of the Police. Their gigs drew boisterous crowds at the likes of the Student Union Ballroom at the University of New Mexico, while the groovy light dance-pop of the Muttz (from Taos) drew similar college crowds, as did Beverly’s Boyfriend, who embraced Pat Benatar formulas. Most bizarre, though, might be The Wet Sox, a homegrown version of UB40 that played “NM Funk Rock Reggae.”

By the 1990s, though, punk had metastasized as the hammering genre of choice for many antsy, dissenting, feral, and fierce desert youth looking for kicks.

Santa Fe, a tourist-heavy enclave in the northern half where one can smell pine nuts roasting in the biting chill, somehow delivered Logical Nonsense to the world, who were grabbed up first by Very Small, then Alternative Tentacles, by the late 1990s. Their wall-of-noise and scum/thrash/grind/powerviolence is menacing and seemingly out-of-whack with the Polaroid picture, pueblo-lined nature of the city. Try the metallic “Death Approach.” One member later helped form Econarchy in 2013, a grind/hardcore unit known for releases like Economy Monarchy. Others in the 2000s, like Laughing Dog, bottled the grindcore method too.

On the southern tip, Las Cruces has been often overshadowed by its larger, West Texas sister city El Paso, which burgeoned with punk, from the Plugz and Rhythm Pigs to At the Drive-In. Often, lonely Las Cruces suffered brain drain, like the five punks who ventured north to Albuquerque in the mid-1990s to form the rockabilly-punk Jonny Cats, whose “Burning Rubber” 7″ (American Low Fidelity) is a pomade-drenched motorcycle classic. In recent years, Local Crap Records took up the slack in town, producing bands like The Casual Fridays and Homegrown Outlaws.

For years, the underground music scenes clustered in Albuquerque, centered mostly around Central Ave. and the university neighborhoods, where cheap rent, dry bursts of oven-like heat, abundant diners and eateries, as well as armies of skittering roaches were the norm. Record stores like Mind Over Matter, Natural Sound, Bow Wow Records, and Drop Out Records became epicenters.

Meanwhile, rock’n’roll clubs offered cheap thrills, from small dives like collegiate Fat Chance, all ages Club 909,  and the murky Dingo Bar, which booked the likes of Mike Watt, Unsane, God Bullies, and the Cows, to Golden West Saloon, which hosted road shows by the dozens, from Brainiac and L7 to the Dickies, Pegboy, and  Jon Spencer. The sister venue to Golden West was the much larger El Rey, which held terrific nights of brazen underground rock’n’roll, like co-billed Jawbreaker and No Means No drawing 1,000 kids.

Unfortunately, the Golden West Saloon, in the hands of the Kathy Zimmer family since 1929,  when her grandfather erected it, was ravaged by fire in 2008, after a linseed soaked rag in a plastic container spontaneously combusted, not long after the Business gigged there.

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Such spaces nourished locals like Elephant. Not unlike the Pixies, they were a tight, dual-gendered, gravely rock’n’punk outfit that released two singles and an album on Resin Records, a start-up label that incubated a variety of acts, like Bring Back Dad, ALLUCANEAT, Treadmill, Flake, and more. In fact, Flake toured out West on occasion, opening for notables like Archers of Loaf, Rocket From the Crypt and Yo La Tengo. They also cut the tune “Deluca” for a split single with Henry’s Dress, for Omnibus Records, and the Spork EP for Science Project before renaming and rebranding as The Shins.

Meanwhile, Big Damn Crazy Weight, whose thudding, thundering “Tijeras” 7” (on Resin) recalls the era of Amphetamine Reptile, landed a single, “Mighty As Well,” that debuted on Sub Pop in Oct. 1992.

Resin’s prime act was The Drags, the delirious three-piece garage ensemble that soon took up residence on Empty and Estrus Records, who released three of their non-stop action albums, including Dragsploitation … Now! Try the scurvy surf beater “$7 Bologna” or the full-bore smash’n’pummel “Shovel Fight,” a little like early Makers, or “Elongated Man,” a head-spinning mash-up of the Ramones, Ventures, and Man or Astroman? They even appear on The Sore Losers soundtrack alongside Jack Oblivion, ’68 Comeback, and Los Diablos Del Sol. And in a true testament to their stripped-to-the-bone, wild-ass charms, Rocket From The Crypt covered their “Allergic Reaction” on RFTC’s EP On a Rope in 1992.

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On the poppier spectrum, bands were aplenty, like the Alarm Clock, Young Adults, and the Ponies, but the persistently tuneful Rondelles (also members of LuxoChamp) drew the attention of Grist-Milling, Teenbeat, K, and Smells Like Records, producing fare that is garagey, smart, lean, and wooly. They eventually hightailed to Washington D.C. and toured with the likes of Mooney Suzuki before imploding. On the emo side of things, Silver, featuring writer David Ensminger on drums, self-released a 45 single as well as a split single with roiling Midwest greaser punks Nitro Jr. Guitarist Jobrian Stammer, currently a noted tattooist, continued in acts like Rollover 45, Better Off Dead, and more recently, the venal distorted grit of Losing It.

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In 1994, the tongue-tying, indie rock Triskadeckaphobia released “Lady Brown” on Superstition Records, while Luxo Champ (punchy keyboard punk ala Servotron) released their self-titled EP on Super 8 Underground, including titanic tunes like Spacerobotactionfun! Scared of Chaka blitzkrieged the states with their manic Dickies-meets-Marked Men energy, producing numerous quintessential cuts for 702, Sub City, Hopeless, and Empty Records, including a split with Word Salad for Science Project. As their more obscure counterparts, Word Salad pursued the dark side relentlessly, cutting drum-heavy grind for Prank, Dogshit Recurdz, and Hater of God.

Meanwhile, three adept sisters (Gel, Laura, and Lisa Baca) formed the core of the Eyeliners (formerly Psychodrama), who remain one of the state’s most prolific and recognized exports. Their stealthy pop-punk fare quickly rose to the top of the heap, making labels like Sympathy for the Record Industry, Lookout! Records, and even Blackheart Records scramble for them. Chew on “Here Comes Trouble” for snotty, leather-jacketed, melodic fury.

Meanwhile, young guns from Albuquerque over the last decade continue to ply their trade, like trad-punkers Party Vikings, the hybrid metal minders Leeches of Lore, and Russian Girlfriends, a nimble hardcore unit reminiscent of a thrashier version of early Asexuals or Samiam, whose debut LP was released by Orange Whip Records. Doomed to Exist (brute distortion that sounds like Japanese d-beat), Wulff, Lucia, Twelve Titans, Honorable Death, Embelisk, and Cobra Vs. Mongoose shred too, filling up places venues like the Launchpad, American Legion Post 49, and the Armory.

In addition, SceneXSplitter is now one of the self-made DIY media outlets that keeps the city abuzz.

Though most of the country thinks the southwest is a weird void, desert youth will never recede and keep quiet in the dustbin of history.

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This story originally appeared in Dagger zine.

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