Smile Politely

Order and Anarchy: An Interview with Jim McHugh of Dark Meat

Jim McHugh is buying coffee in Austin, Texas, and asks that I call him back in five minutes so he’s not the guy waiting in line on his cell phone. I appreciate this and gladly hang up. I give him seven minutes, knowing how those lines sometimes go, and when I call back he apologizes.

“I’ve been a service industry douchebag too many years to be that guy,” he says.

The tone is such that this statement, somehow, should explain everything. And in some ways, this awareness does explain a lot.

McHugh uses phrases like “nuked them” to describe the effect his band, Dark Meat, has on audiences. He calls what the band does a “trip,” as if playing in the band is as effective as the psychedelic drugs he writes about in his songs, and which were notably responsible for many of Dark Meat’s mantras in the first place. He idolizes the self-sufficiency of the Orange Mound commune in Athens, Georgia, where all of the seventeen-plus members of Dark Meat call home. He also idolizes the self-sufficiency of Parliament Funkadelic.

This combination of organic and psychedelic does not fall on deaf ears, and in some ways best explains Dark Meat in a way that musical comparisons can’t.

After 25 minutes it occurred to me that many of the questions asked were somewhat basic, but when taking into account that the band has upwards of twenty members split into sub-groups called Vomit Lasers, the Subtweeters, and more—that their MySpace name reads “Dark Meat/Vomit Lasers Family Band/Galaxy” — it occurs to me that nothing is typical here, and certainly that nothing is basic.

Smile Politely: Mike ‘n Molly’s is a small place and you’re a big band. How many people are you touring with right now?

Jim McHugh: It keeps waxing and waning because some people always have to leave to take care of things, and some people rejoin at different times. We picked up a tour manager, kind of accidentally but fortunately. It’s hard to say but I think it’ll be sixteen.

SP: You’ve probably answered this in every interview you’ve ever done, but with that many people how does it all work?

JM: In what essence?

SP: Performing, organizing, showing up…

JM: We operate very much as an incorporated entity, which we are. We’re also a very anarchic group of psychedelic morons a lot of times, but in order to keep that on the rails we have to straighten up and do other shit. Behaviorally and performance-wise, we leave it open. Flux. You do whatever the fuck you want to do. But in order to make it happen on a real level, we have to have the auto mechanics there — they’re in our band already, we have to have the bookkeeper there — they’re in our band already, we have to have the publicist. We just have to keep it going. Parliament Funkadelic is our model for that because they did everything in-house. All their reputation for being crack smoking psychedelic goons is pretty right on, but they had their publicist and everything in house and that’s inspirational to us. They inspire us on a musical level, too.

SP: They got shit done regardless of how they led their lives.

JM: Yeah. That’s sort of how we have to operate. To play’s the thing, and in order to get the play on, you gotta have your shit together.

SP: You and Ben [Clack] started this project; that’s two people. I don’t know if you can possibly answer this, but is this what you envisioned when you saw the band in your minds?

JM: I didn’t envision anything. I was at a low point in my life, musically and spiritually and in every other way. I felt kind of lost in Athens. I played in a band I really wasn’t into and they kicked me out. I broke up with my girlfriend. I had to move out of the house I was in. Basically Ben and I found this big blue house in a really beautiful area of Athens, with a lot of space. I had to put all my gear somewhere so we put it all in the front room and started jamming. Instead of being really structured about it, we were open to people coming by and playing whatever. We all pretty much coalesced one weekend when we all took psychedelic drugs and went to see Olivia Tremor Control play at the amphitheater in Orange Twin. Ben and I had been jamming with some co-workers, who are now all in the band, playing Neil Young songs with the idea of playing at frat bars to make money. We all took psychedelic drugs and everybody’s life had hit the skids — people gone to jail, people’s bands broken up. We just decided “fuck it” and started our own thing. Olivia is such a self-contained and non-reactionary musical unit and we should be too. That’s sort of how we started, but it was anarchic from the start.

SP: In a lot of ways — in good ways — that’s the way the music feels: a bunch of people contributing what they can at any given time.

JM: That openness has definitely informed our songwriting structure. Sometimes it gives you the pressure to cram everything in, and I think that’s good because people have this ideas bouncing around and it’s very active and participant-oriented. I’ll generally bring the lyrical idea for the songs to band practice, and by the time it passes through everyone’s hands it’s something else altogether. It’s a very open songwriting. People join in, people have ideas, different people take charge.

SP: I don’t want to repeat myself, but how to you negotiate these sorts of contributions while still taking that attitude toward the songs? When you listen to the band you’re obviously rehearsed, and regardless of improvisation or whoever’s contributing at what point, there’s always a kind of order to the songs.

JM: We’re pretty much a Southern rock informed punk rock band with free-jazz horns. People think that’s a really radical idea but it just seems natural to me. Years of obsessively listening to a million different records broke my mind as far as what is proper musically, but there are very few battles. I can be a dick sometimes but I try to let the reins go because I trust everyone in our band, musically. Even if we don’t use a song or a part of a song, we’re generally better off for having tried something than not. We’re all good at editing. If something doesn’t work we’re pretty vocal about it. Consequentially it’ll take us about four months to debut a song. There’s a new song we’ve got called “No One Was There” that’s just one chord the whole time and it took us six months to get it together to play live. It just really depends on the nature of the song and what it culls out of people. And the songs are always changing. That’s one of the important things about the band is that, on the level of performance, our songs are really drastically different every night. That’s what so important about our live shows versus our albums. We try to incorporate that spirit of jazz and free jazz, leaving everything open and dependent upon the performance scenario rather than have it be closed in within itself.

SP: Even with the jazz tradition they would say that editing is the best form of writing.

JM: I studied fiction writing in college. I didn’t study music or anything. And the whole mantra is “writing is revising, revising is writing.” I studied with the novelist Michael Parker for six years independently from school and, as you know, the process of writing fiction is completely work-oriented to a backbreaking degree. That’s where I developed my policy of editing. I think it really helps with Dark Meat to be obsessive about it.

SP: You have to be obsessive about it or you don’t achieve anything. The whole thing that stemmed this discussion is that somehow there’s order amongst the anarchy, as you said.

JM: Sometimes a song needs to be Raymond Carver and sometimes a song needs to be William Goyen. Most of the time with us it’s William Goyen.

SP: You sort of hit on this earlier, when you said you’re a Southern rock punk band with a free jazz horn section, but how does the dynamic work in the sense of Dark Meat as a “collective?” It seems like each part of the band has its own personality, which makes the group a band of bands instead of a band of seventeen people, which somehow makes a little more sense to me.

JM: To a degree that’s true, and basically that dynamic was shaped by schematic needs. We used to practice in a big house where we didn’t have enough space. The horn section would practice in the kitchen and the vocalists would all practice at the same time in the record room, and the core of the band would be in the front room. Basically we had to break up on the level of nomenclature just to keep things simple. Today we’re going to have Vomit Lasers practice, tomorrow will be Subtweeters. Our songwriting process necessitates sectional practices. But it’s probably more accurate to describe our band as a collective of members of other projects…Within Dark Meat, between solo projects and other people’s involvement in other bands, there are probably twenty bands involved. That’s just the nature of Athens, though, more than the nature of our individual band. Everybody is so actively participatory in everything. Everybody is so into being supportive. Instead of, “I’ll come to your show!” it’s “Do you need an alto sax player?” That’s pretty much how Athens operates. That’s how why we have the number of people we do. People don’t stop at the door, they come in. It’s a really natural way to make music because there’s no competition. There’s no negative shit. Everybody’s right there, everybody wants to join in.

SP: Do you feel like that allowed you to see out that project as it started getting bigger and bigger? Did it allow you just say “Fuck it,” and do this thing with sixteen, seventeen people, instead of stopping to wonder whether or not people will dig it?

JM: Yeah! There’s never been a Dark Meat show that wasn’t completely fucking insane on one level or the other. Our first show was October 5, 2005, and word got out that we were playing. It’s nothing to do with us, it’s just how Athens is. We played four songs in a basement and there was naked crowd surfing and it was dangerously crowded. Athens is just a really supportive, amazing place like that, and we would in no way exist in the form we do now without that attitude and place in Athens. We wouldn’t have the members, it wouldn’t go as effortlessly as it does. Part of the psychology of being in Athens is that everybody is completely predispositioned to make the sacrifices it takes to tour, to practice, to have their gear together, to have their skills together. Everybody is just waiting and willing to play. But they’re not waiting. They’re playing. That philosophy and that attitude is completely at the heart of what we’re doing.

SP: A lot of people talk about how a place can influence them, but it seems like a place like Athens gives you the balls to do what you want to do.

JM: Exactly. It’s also surrounded by such beautiful countryside and everybody is so kind in Athens. The Orange Twin commune is incredible and we’re proud to be part of that and support that. It’s really inspiring and challenges you to put your money where your mouth is instead of being a mealy-mouthed bitch about everything that’s wrong with music and life and the scene. Instead, just do it. Have some balls or shut up. You can always move to Atlanta, you know?

SP: A scene is supposed to be a celebration, right? Otherwise, why claim the collective “scene” moniker at all?

JM: There was an early mantra that we had in our band. Our trip was kind of odd to people at first. We were much rowdier than your average Athenian. And our music was rowdier than shit that was going on. The pop shit is great but ours is a different fabric altogether. We’re like a redneck Pretty Things. But the thing is, we’re just going to do our thing — we’re not going to react to any sort of musical attitude or musical stance. A reactionary stance is a very pathetic things to base a musical movement on, in some ways. I think about my songwriting in those terms, too. I don’t think it’s wroth writing about your shitty job or people you dislike on a petty social level. It should be elevated. It should be William Goyen! It should be celebratory. It should be lovelorn. And that’s where we’re coming from.

SP: When I listen to the record, especially, I hear some of Paul Kantner’s Blows Against the Empire record.

JM: We love Jefferson Airplane and all that shit.

SP: That specific record’s so cool to me, even moreso than the other Jefferson Airplane records, because it’s afterward but it’s all of them still. But it’s also Crosby and Nash, and half of the Grateful Dead, and whoever happened to walk by the studio. There’s this unbridled feeling of a ton of people in the same place at the same time, and all of them know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. That was the only comparison I could really make to anything you guys sound like.

JM: I’m down with that. Some people say we sound like the Richard Hell halftime show, which I’m also down with.

SP: These are the strange things we do to contextualize things for ourselves — these comparisons we have to make.

JM: Right, right.

SP: Universal Indians has seen a number of incarnations. How did it come to be backed, or released, three different times? And I know you said it takes a long time to get a song down, but are you guys working toward another record right now?

JM: We hope to have a record out by fall. We’ve done some demo work and we’ve got about 80 percent of the material. I have a couple more things I want to work on. Universal Indians was recorded at a pretty strange juncture for our band. We didn’t envision an album. We were just getting our shit down. It still felt like a project we were just doing. But in the studio, John Fernandez of Olivia Tremor Control offered us a deal on Cloud Records. So we decided to see to it then. “Freedom Ritual” was basically written in the studio. Most of the songs hadn’t been seen to their ends when we were laying them to take. I really like the versions — it’s a accurate statement of where we were as a band — but the next one is going to be more of a complete artistic statement. I have a much clearer vision of what I want our next album to be. Our songs have gained a new sense of structure that’s more organically psychedelic. More droned out and influenced by Sufi music and tribal rhythms. It’s going to sound much less like a Southern rock punk band with a free jazz horn section, even though those elements are going to be there because I still sing like a redneck. But the main influences are going to be the last couple of Boredoms LPs, The Stooges, African pygmy music and Sufi devotional music that I’ve been obsessively listening to, and Ornette Coleman records where he’s playing with an electric band. We’ve gotten much more open in our structures and we’re going to have to work a lot harder to get them down the way that they can come across on a record, because they’re less punk rock songs, more open and experimental. Btu I feel like the next record will feel like a weird, psychedelic record we made in the studio very consciously instead of just playing and rolling tape and hoping we sound the way we do live. But we hope to have it out by autumn. That’s the plan.

Dark Meat performs tonight at Mike ‘n Molly’s, 105 N. Market St, Champaign. Also on the bill is The Living Blue, The Beauty Shop, and Quiet Hooves. The show is 21+ and cover is only $5.

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