Last winter, Dangerous Minds told you about Laddio Bolocko, an obscure (but important) art-damaged jazz/rock band of the late ‘90s, which itself was the product of two obscure (but important) midwestern math-metal bands, Craw and Dazzling Killmen. Those bands emerged from what amounts to a non-scene; bands working in the idiom were emerging in isolation from one another in far-flung midwestern cities. All of them clearly had Melvins in their roots, but were so uncompromisingly intense and dramatic in the complexity of their arrangements that none of them—save for Pittsburgh’s marvelous Don Caballero—were able to connect with an audience that could parse what they were doing well enough to actually give a shit about them when they still existed. In a very familiar irony, by the late ‘90s, that sound would be everywhere in “post-hardcore,” but its progenitors would mostly be forgotten.
The story of Craw was told in exhaustive detail earlier this year when rollingstone.com editor Hank Shteamer produced a 6XLP boxed set which included a 200 page book that featured an oral history of the group—nervy move, to so honor a band that registered slightly above zero giveafucks outside its hometown. Dazzling Killmen, having the advantage of being on a much higher-profile label than Craw, fared a little better, but still haven’t properly gotten their due, though the band’s members went on to play in Colossamite, Jim O’Rourke’s Brise-Glace, Japanoise bonecrushers Zeni Geva, and experimental prog godheads The Mars Volta.
The band formed in the St. Louis, MO area, and forged its singular sound with almost no music scene support for such a fringy concept. Their 1994 album, Face of Collapse, was a top-shelf example, maybe even THE best example, of their genre—technically impeccable playing enabling whiplash stop-starts that recalled John Zorn’s Naked City more readily than any rock group one could name, cathartic and discordant guitar stabs, a jaw-dropping rhythm section, arrangements of baroque complexity, and a harrowing, overbearing, inescapable sense of pure dread. But in 1994, the planet was all about Ace of Base, and Face of Collapse landed with a thud. Even in the underground, where Sub Pop and Amphetamine Reptile had primed audiences for extremity, the album got a handful of good reviews (mostly comparing them to Helmet and Jesus Lizard because that was what you compared everything to back then if you were lazy) and that was that. Personal tensions exacerbated by the rigors of touring and poor communication blew the band apart on the eve of a Japanese tour in 1995, and the odds-’n’-sods compilation Recuerda was their gravestone.
Dazzling Killmen were singer/guitarist Nick Sakes, guitarist Tim Garrigan, bassist Darin Gray, and drummer Blake Fleming. Sakes currently performs in Xaddax, and Fleming teaches drums via Skype and continues to enjoy an edifying career as a drummer for hire. Both graciously took time out of their lives to fill us in on the band’s history.
Sakes: Darin and I started our friendship in the early 80’s by going to shows together and hanging out all the time. We would mainly go to hardcore shows and the occasional SST band that rolled throw like Slovenly or fIREHOSE. There weren’t very many local bands in St. Louis then. Blind Idiot God had flown the coop to New York around 1985, I think. Darin and I loved Saccharine Trust and other weirdo fringe band at the time, like Sonic Youth. That was when it seemed like SST signed pretty much everyone good. Our main friends in bands at the time were Ultraman and Uncle Tupelo. They were great models on how to do all the necessary crap involved in playing shows, recording…
Fleming: Darin and I met initially at one of my high school jazz band concerts that he came to see. I was 15 or 16 at that time. He came up to me after the concert and we had a really great conversation about music etc. Soon after that first meeting I ended up playing in the local community college jazz band where Darin happened to be playing bass. During a 15=minute rehearsal break while everyone else hit the vending machines and chatted, Darin and I started playing, probably grooving on some kind of dub feel. There was an instant connection and energy that wasn’t apparent while we were trying to make our way through some big band charts but the moment it was just bass and drums something happened. After that he and I started getting together almost every weekend and improvising, just drums and bass, for hours. We would literally do 4 to 5 hour jams without stopping, just endlessly exploring and grooving. Darin had stopped doing drugs at that point and I had not been introduced to them yet so music became our vehicle for alteration. We took over this little room on the second floor of an old house that was turned into the music building of the community college Darin attended. The Killmen were born in that building.
Sakes: There came a point when I had been to so many shows in town, year after year, and there were always really mismatched opening bands for all these great touring bands. I got frustrated. I was also an avid fanzine reader and after reading my 154,784th record review I just thought “fuck, this can’t be that difficult. I must do this. I hear songs in my head.” I bought a guitar—an Ampeg Heavy Stud—and at the time Darin was going to a local community college studying music and had just had his first son, so he wasn’t exactly in a position to be in a band. Oh well. I asked if he would just show me the basics of the guitar. So a couple of times a week I’d go to his house and we’d go to the basement while his son slept and he showed me barre chords. I started to make up chords at Darin’s urging. He never said to bother learning the notes or music theory, so I never did. I still to this day don’t know shit about what notes are what. I struggled for a while and then little riffs started to take shape and he’d play a bass line to it. Soon we had a couple of songs. I was excited to go go go and Darin kept raving about this guy Blake he went to school with, and he wasn’t sure if Blake would be into it, but he’d ask. Our first practice with Blake was the first time in my life I had ever played in a real band. I was 26.
Fleming: We got together on the first floor of that music building. We all exchanged some serious “holy shit” looks during that first rehearsal as a three piece. We knew then and there that we were on to something. So we continued. During the band’s inception I wasn’t too aware of the St. Louis underground scene yet. I really got introduced to it through the Killmen. Before then I was playing in a cover band with some high school friends, taking lessons, playing in a bagpipe band, plus a couple jazz bands. Darin and Nick, being older, turned me onto a whole world of music that I hadn’t been exposed to much of at that point.
Sakes: We did a lot of playing live, recorded “Dig Out The Switch” and eventually Tim Garrigan came along. Tim was a music student at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. He played in jazz combos with Darin and Blake all the time there. They knew each other’s playing styles, etc. Eventually, we asked if he wanted to join and he agreed. A little while after that Darin and Tim were roommates in a little house and did a lot of the writing and arranging of Face Of Collapse. Those three guys were on the ball with the music theory and I was a little bit of an outsider musician, which worked well, I think.
Fleming: There was no scene per se for us to fall into. At that time, 1990, St. Louis was made up of hair metal bands, alt-country sorts, and pre grunge bands that were starting to mix 70’s rock with punk. There were a few of us that were doing free jazz type jams and open mics but no one was fusing it with the elements the Killmen were. We were making it up as we went along. Those initial songs came about as a way for Nick to learn guitar. 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.
Sakes: We sorta knew about this comic called “Skin Graft” that these two guys Mark Fischer and Rob Syers did. We didn’t know them. After a show where we opened for the Jesus Lizard, they and this other friend of theirs Greg Kessler came up to us and proposed the idea of doing a 7” split record/comic cover, and would Dazzling Killmen like to do this…we were the first band. Greg had this band from Minneapolis called Mother’s Day that he wanted to be the other band on the record. I’m not sure how that came about. That’s pretty much it. Skin Graft Records got born.
Fleming: There was no connection between the Killmen and Mother’s Day other than that split 7”. Jeff Tweedy of Uncle Tupelo played some scratching guitar overdubs for us on that one.
When we went in to do Face of Collapse we didn’t have much of a handle on using the studio other than to just record and mix. None of us were experienced studio musicians at that point so we basically went in, set up and played our songs. The Killmen rehearsed religiously because there was really nothing we wanted to do more. The discipline to develop and perform that music was built-in from the desire to see our mission through. Most of the songs on FoC are first takes with no punching in. The vocals were overdubbed and a couple guitar flourishes but other than that, what you hear is exactly what we played live in Steve Albini’s basement. A far cry from the usual record making process of today.
Sakes: We scheduled three days for recording it but were done by lunch on the third day. Steve had some cool ideas, especially for weird stuff with my vocals. I’m glad we went with it. That was all him.
Fleming: Those that knew of the band and the album were usually fairly rabid about it. That said, there were very few of those people at the time. Skin Graft eventually sold out of it so i guess it did OK in indie terms. The band, like so many before and since, was starting to attract a bigger audience right toward the end when the struggle had already gotten the best of us and seams were starting to split. We broke up two weeks before going to Japan to tour with Zeni Geva, and had already toured with Sleep and Neurosis, with whom we shared a booking agent. Things were starting to move forward for us but it came a little too late.
Face of Collapse has finally gotten a posh remaster/reissue treatment. A 2XLP set with a gatefold sleeve, a gorgeous screen print on LP side 4, and an extravagant booklet containing an oral history of the band by Hank Shteamer (cornering that market, are you, Hank?) was released earlier this year, and it looks and sounds incredible. CD and digital options are also available from Skin Graft.