Vocalist Vice Cooler and guitarist Steve Touchstone
The undefinable trio of XBXRX formed just as the Riot Grrl movement of the mid 1990s was sinking back into the underground. Inspired by the bold risks girls like Kathleen Hanna and Kim Gordon were taking in their vocals and the unrestrained musical attacks of bands like Unwound and Deerhoof, the band from Alabama created a strange hybrid of the ’90s sound which usually gets confused with being hardcore but actually has no set genre. I had a great threeway call with vocalist Vice Cooler and guitarist Steve Touchstone about the brilliance of Kill Rock Stars, recording with Ian Mackaye and Steve Albini and how their live shows have resulted in permanent scarring.
What’s the significance of your band name?
(Steve) There’s absolutely no true significance to the name. When we came up with it, basically, the two main things we were working on was that we wanted a name that we knew no one would already have because basically every one- or two- or even three-word names that you would come up with — especially when we were 13, 14 years old — anything that we would come up with was something that someone, somewhere in the world, was already using. And we didn’t want something that would be dumb and regrettable — nothing that had too much meaning or that we thought was funny or cool… having that in mind, I woke up one day — having been sleeping on it — and I had this random combination of letters.
Plus it’s cool having a band that starts with the letter “X.”
(Steve) It’s cool, and it’s not cool. At the time we had no idea about straight edge, for instance.
(Vice) We also didn’t realize the combination of three X’s meaning pornography. We were too young to really realize all of the different symbolic meanings of X ::laughs::. So we kind of regret that area a little bit, we could have used a “y” or something.
I didn’t even think about that.
(Vice) Good, I’m glad!
You’ve worked with some legendary producers. When you go into the studio with people that have such a history, what is that like?
(Vice) We work with people more based on references, or if we think they’ll understand what we’re doing — esspecially in the earlier days, because a lot of people didn’t understand what we were doing. It was before a lot of the stuff that’s out now, like Lightning Bolt or Black Dice, wasn’t popular. We recorded with Vern Rumsey from Unwound… we had met him and hung out a bunch, and he totally understood what we were doing. He had a studio, and we wanted to record with him because we thought he was awesome.
When we recorded with Ian MacKaye, I’m pretty sure that no one in the band had ever heard Minor Threat or Fugazi — none of us had heard any of that. He just sent us a postcard before, and then he came to a show, and we became friends. He got what we were doing. He wasn’t, like, totally oblivious — and ya know — we knew that it would be a good situation to go into. So we did the Ian thing more on a thing based out of friendship. Don Zientara was also part of that, so it wasn’t completely Ian, so it was good to have this double production team, engineers or whatever.
Then with Steve Albini, that was based on a reference. We never heard any of his bands, but we knew he had recorded Pod and In Utero and a bunch of records that we thought sounded really good. We didn’t think he would do it, and then these friends of ours — who were going to put out the record — called him up, and he was like “Yeah, I’ll totally do it.” They ended up not doing the record, and we ended up paying for it ourselves, but we got studio time and went in. That was one of my favorite recording experiences — I think it sounds really good, close to the sound that I really like on records.
Your sound reminds of the whole vibe of the ’90s. Did you grow up listening to that music, or is that just coincidental?
(Steve) We were definitely, like, of the ’90s generation. We were all getting into music in the early, mid ’90s — that just has to do with our age. The first bands that really got us stoked about music were bands like Sonic Youth, Flaming Lips, The Breeders, Nirvana, Bikini Kill, Free Kitten — stuff like that, the whole Kill Rock Stars catalog. Deerhoof, Unwound, The PeeChees. We were all born in the ’80s, and when you get to the early age of, like, 10 you start getting into music. The Internet was just popping up then, so we’d go to the Kill Rock Stars/AOL message board and find out about bands, and go to chat rooms — found out about Slant 6 that way — so I guess our strongest exposure to music is ’90s.
It’s weird, ’cause a lot of people put us into the hardcore category, and none of us actually listen to hardcore. I have a few hardcore records, but they’re more like weird, warped versions of it — like Harem Scarem, which was a lesbian band from Portland (laughs). So that was out of the ordinary for hardcore. People always try to talk to me about hardcore, and I’m totally oblivious.
It’s cool that you named a bunch of those riot grrl bands because that’s part of what drew me to your latest album. Here’s a band of all guys, 10 years after that riot grrl scene that I grew up listening to, yet this album reminded me of all of these obscure albums I listened to in high school.
(Vice) Cool! That’s awesome! That’s a really high compliment, ’cause we do so many interviews and shows and stuff, and everyone’s always like “Yeah, dude! [names an obscure hardcore band],” and I’m like “Ummm, never heard their records.” And then when people ask “What do you listen to?” and it’s like “’90s and Top 40.” It’s like, rap, electronic music and the KRS catalog from the ’90s, Nirvana and Sonic Youth. So it’s cool that it reminded you of that as opposed to ::mimics hardcore drumming noise::.
(Steve) I think it is worth noting though that it’s not like we’re just into ’90s stuff, either. In the van, it’s kind of ridiculous, the different things that will get put into the CD player.
(Vice) I think people would be really surprised. It’s like, I just got home from the UK yesterday — I played a show in Birmingham solo — and all these people kept coming up to me, and they were like, “Man, it’s crazy, I heard that you were in the record store here, when XBXRX was in town, and you just went downstairs into the electronic section and bought all 2-step and grind records. Like 10 of ’em, and you didn’t get any hardcore records.” People seemed to be shocked enough about that to the point where it was a rumor in town ::laughs::. I thought that was really funny, ’cause a lot of the stuff I get inspired by is electronic music… In our van it’ll be, like, a hip-hop song, then Lily Allen, then Eddie Murphy standup. For instance, our drummer, the music he’s most passionate about is modern classical stuff, or he’ll be on the search for rare free jazz records.
You’d get bored if you listened to the same thing all the time.
(Vice) Definitely. I feel like you get so much more inspired when you have exposure to other things as opposed to just one thing over and over again. I even watch bands that I don’t personally like because there could be one or two things that give me a really strong idea. Like I could see a really bad bar funk band and find one drum fill that’s completely insane and it’ll have this domino effect in my mind to turn into another song. There’s so much ideas out there, and I think it’s really unfortunate when people put themselves into liking only one thing.
Your upcoming album is called Wars. Is that a comment about our current world situation, or is that a metaphor for something else?
(Vice) Partially, but I feel that it has multiple meanings — it’s not just World War III, ya know? It’s got a lot to do with inner struggles and day-to-day struggles. So many people we know, their life just is a war every day: being able to pay off their credit cards, or having enough money to go get groceries to even eat. Like “How am I gonna pay my rent this month?” It has multiple meanings, for sure.
(Steve) War is such a weird word these days because you can apply it to anything — you can have a war against anything — so, for me, it’s more of just having to do with life and where we’re at at the moment rather than getting into specifics like “This is about the war in Iraq.”
I’ve never seen your live show, but after hearing your music I can imagine it would be intense live. Do the crowds get really crazy?
(Vice) After doing so many shows, when we play to a crowd that’s still — especially in the U.S., where people just tend to go completely bananas. Usually the crowd responds by going pretty nuts, which I think is good, ’cause — to me — that comes across as an emotional response, which makes me feel really good ’cause it makes me feel like I’m actually speaking to them on a level that touches them, ya know? But you can look at it as a robotic response just as much, so you can’t really tell, but I like to think of it as being emotional ::laughs::.
Has it ever gotten to the point where you feared for the crowd, or even your own, safety?
(Vice) Yeah, one thing that comes to mind is we did a show in Chicago a few years ago and a kid’s earring got ripped out, and then he came up to us, and he was bleeding — his whole shoulder was covered in blood, and he was like, “That was awesome!” And we were like, “What happened?!” He’s like, “Oh, my earring got ripped out.” We were like, “That fucking sucks!” We were really upset about it, but he was stoked!
(Steve) It’s hard to tell what people’s motivations are ’cause there are the jocky kids who are going there to get in the circle pit and “fuck shit up” — that’s their purpose for going out.
Do you like being on tour?
(Steve) It’s a mixed bag, it kind of depends what day of the tour you’re asking that question ::laughs::. Overall, we love it. We wouldn’t be touring if we didn’t like doing it. We also have enough forethought to realize the aspects of touring we don’t like, and we avoid it. Like we decided not to tour for more than two weeks at one time; that’s been very helpful in keeping our sanity and our financial situation and our home life in check. A lot of bands will be so stoked they have an album coming out that they’ll go tour for two and a half months straight, then they’ll break up afterwards.
(Vice) You have to be really aware of your limitations and not push yourself too hard; otherwise, you’re gonna end up in a really bad situation. A lot of bands will be really naive about it, and their friendships get ruined. A lot of bands, when they go on their first European tour, they’ll be “I’m going to Europe, and I’m gonna make it three months long!!!” Some friends of mine were talking to me about it, since I’ve been there a lot, and I told them “It’s a bad idea.” It’s too much. You can’t push yourselves that hard without consequences. Some bands can do it, but I think it’s rare.
Thanks so much. I’m really enjoying the new record so good luck with that.
(Vice) Thank you. I’m really glad you made the Riot Grrl reference point. You’re the first person ever to do that. Very cool.