The Cure for Trenchmouth

Damon Locks and Wayne Montana are used to being square pegs. They played together for nearly a decade in a band called Trenchmouth, and although they sold about 5,000 copies of each of their four albums and sustained themselves on the road for up to six months a year, their career path looked something like Sisyphus’s. Critics didn’t know what to make of (or simply didn’t like) the band’s raggedly polyrhythmic mix of funk, dub, and lefty hardcore, and they never quite gained the momentum to break through to a larger audience.

“Trenchmouth always had trouble because we grew up in the punk rock world and punk rock people didn’t like what we thought was punk rock,” says Montana. “Which was being creative and doing whatever you wanted, changing things and fucking with stuff.” Trenchmouth broke up in 1996, but now Locks and Montana are pursuing similar goals in a trio with a different sound–the Eternals, with drummer Dan Fliegel. This time out, the wind seems to be blowing at their backs.

“By our second show I think we made more money for a gig in Chicago than we did at any time with Trenchmouth,” says Montana. “It’s been easier than it was with Trenchmouth.”

“Yeah,” says Locks, “but anything would be easier than it was with Trenchmouth.”

Locks and Montana started playing together in 1987, when Locks, who grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, was attending the School of Visual Arts in New York. They met through drummer Fred Armisen, who’d grown up with Montana on Long Island, and in a quintet first called Fred and later Shovel, Locks sang and Montana played bass. After about a year, Locks quit in anticipation of transferring to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and after he left, Montana–who hadn’t been playing for as long as Armisen or the guitarists–was kicked out.

Within a month, Armisen had persuaded Montana that the two of them should follow Locks to Chicago. “I told Fred that I was going to bring my bass, but that I didn’t want to be in a band,” says Montana. “I didn’t want to be the guy who got kicked out again.” But by the end of 1989, after a series of guitarists, the quartet’s lineup stabilized with Chicagoan Chris DeZutter on guitar. Locks immediately pushed Trenchmouth toward a cross-pollinated punk influenced by the Ruts, Fishbone, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers as well as by more aggressive D.C. bands like Bad Brains and Scream.

“Growing up I heard all kinds of music and I think I was old enough that I wanted to branch out and incorporate other kinds of music into the aggressive pool of music I wanted to do,” says Locks. “It seemed like everyone else in the band was there to do the same thing, to try to create music that didn’t exist yet, at least in our 19-year-old minds.” Early on the result was a discordant, unfocused mess, but by the time Trenchmouth released its final album, The Broadcasting System (Skene), in 1996, the aesthetic that would lead to the Eternals had started to evolve. The band opened up its claustrophobically busy arrangements to incorporate nonrock rhythmic variations, from Latin accents to heavy dub inflections. Nevertheless, after the album was finished, Armisen announced his intention to leave the band, and after one last tour, Trenchmouth threw in the towel.

Montana, Locks, and DeZutter began experimenting with Euphone’s Ryan Rapsys on drums, but DeZutter soon left to return to school and was replaced by a keyboardist–Richie Smith, a former member of Rome whom Locks had known since high school. Then Rapsys quit, and after a succession of short-term drummers the Eternals made their debut in the summer of 1997 with Fliegel, a former member of Wiseacre and Uptighty. From the band’s first gigs it was clear that the Eternals were onto something: the music was groove based without being dance floor oriented, with complex, interesting rhythms and charismatic, off-kilter singing from Locks, who’d started taking voice lessons. “I figured I had been screaming since 1984 and if we were going to make a different kind of music I should be able to use my voice in more than one way,” he says.

By the year’s end, however, the rock had rolled back down the hill again. “We worked for a year and we didn’t get anywhere,” says Montana. “We had nothing to show for it.” They broke up briefly in early 1998, and Fliegel took a two-month trip to Brazil. When he returned, he persuaded Montana and Locks to give it another whirl. This time, both Montana and Locks played keyboards; eventually Fliegel would begin using some electronics as well. “I was excited about taking on the challenge of trying to do it ourselves, as a trio, to make songs that could be both spare and full,” says Locks. The new configuration was baptized by fire, opening for Tortoise at Metro and then accompanying them on a short leg of their TNT tour. The association with Tortoise and additional gigs with Isotope 217 (on whose latest record Locks does a little vocalizing) boosted the band’s visibility, as did a pair of 12-inch singles released by the influential Thrill Jockey label. But Locks says brand recognition only goes so far. “We’re still on our own in terms of audience,” he says. “We still have to get the music across whether we have records on Thrill Jockey or not. We don’t sound anything like the other bands on the label.”

The Eternals have just released their debut full-length, The Eternals, on DeSoto, the D.C. label operated by former Jawbox bassist Kim Coletta. (The local Aesthetics label is releasing the vinyl; both versions feature Locks’s distinctive linoleum prints, which can also be seen on the cover of the new At the Drive-In disc.) Over deep, thick bass grooves, airy percussion, and catchy but noisy keyboard riffs, Locks sets up tensions both rhythmic (as on “Billions of People,” where his run-on phrasing phases in and out of sync with the groove) and melodic (on “Feverous Times” he sounds like a Shirley Bassey impersonator). The way they maximize a minimum of ingredients and the ingredients they choose make the Eternals closer kin to hip-hop and dancehall than the indie rock DeSoto otherwise specializes in, but the band doesn’t sound quite like anything in those realms either. “I think the Eternals are flourishing now because people are more open musically,” says Montana. “But we’re still pretty weird.”

The Eternals celebrate the release of the album on Sunday night at the Empty Bottle; the 90 Day Men (see Spot Check), whose debut full-length just came out on Southern, headline.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Poling.