Fifty Tons of Black Terror/Groop Dogdrill
Raw Like Sushi
by Frank Mullen
It's a match made in hell: labelmates and drinking buddies Fifty Tons of Black Terror and Groop Dogdrill touring the East Coast, both supporting recently released records. I envy and pity their tour manager -- it appears to be a full-time job just keeping the bands in line, but also seems to be one hell of a good time. We had an Inky conversation before their February show at the Echo Lounge in Atlanta.
Fifty Tons' CD Demeter and Groop's Half Nelson share a few things: songs about sex and liquor, abrasive blues-based energy, and a point of view somewhere south of the wrong side of the tracks, but only slightly north of the gutter. Both bands have had their ups and downs, too. Fifty Tons of Black Terror is known as "Penthouse" in the UK, but was forced into a name change by the US magazine of ill repute. Groop Dogdrill had a lot of exposure in Europe on recent tours with Möltörhead and Therapy?, but this visit to the US was woefully underattended.
Fans of Jesus Lizard or Jon Spencer will feel right at home with Demeter . In the first line of the record, vocalist Charlie Finke sets the stage, growling "I wanna do it to it" over a distorted harp and guitar solos, pounding drums, and a bass as raw as an unfilled tooth. On "The Beauty in the Beast," he screams like he's getting that tooth filled, or maybe passing a bowling ball. Equal parts free-form jazz, soul-selling blues and "Metallic KO," this record screams along like locomotive with a faulty boiler, spitting metal and flame as it lurches down the tracks.
With a nine-pack of empty Guinness bottles as a warmup for this afternoon's soundcheck, Fifty Tons' singer Charlie Finke was plenty relaxed for this conversation. Later on was another story -- pacing the stage like a possessed man, alternately sipping and sloshing a glass of champagne, he was anything but relaxed. Oh, well, enjoy it while you can...
So, you're the band with two names. How did that come about?
Charlie Finke : Well, we got a phone call about two years ago (before we signed to Beggar's), from [the Penthouse] lawyers... "the album title, Gutter Erotica , in association with the band name Penthouse, we find defamatory, and we're going to kick your ass in court all over the world!" We thought it was bollocks, but I asked a couple of friends and they said, "they won't be able to touch you in Europe, but you can never release a record in America without a fight, and you'll lose."
So we sort of knew that was coming for a long time, and about a year later, when Beggar's Banquet picked us up, they said, "We really want to release your record in the States and you've got to change your name," and asked us to think of a name, and it took us about six months. None of us ever knew what to do, and it was starting to hold us back, because we should have had product out in the States ages ago.
One afternoon, my neighbor said, "Call yourselves 'Fifty Tons of Black Terror!'" I thought he was joking, and I said, "You'll never guess what that bloke Paul said we should be called!" to the rest of the lads, because we were going to be called bloody "Slit Whiskey" at this point, or something like that.
Was that really the second choice?
I'm not going to tell you, because it's too offensive. Everything's too offensive -- I can't go into it. I just said it to the guys and there was a sort of moment of silence, and then sort of general nods all around, "all right, sounds like a bit of fun."
Where did the name come from?
He got it from B movies. It's an American one, I think -- '68 or '66 or so? I don't know, a '60s sort of American film. A big spider comes out of the Everglades and eats a little village.
photo by Frank Mullen
50 Tons of Black Terror
Fifty tons worth?
Yeah, a huge spider. Fifty Tons. Black. Eats lots of people.
Have you been to the States before?
We did CMJ in New York and played at Arlene's Grocery in November 11th? Pete's birthday? No, Bonfire Night.
Is that an after-Halloween holiday?
No, it's -- some conspirators tried to blow up the king ages ago. What they do is recreate his death, because he was arrested and burned at the stake. So every year, kids sit down with little effigies that they've made and make bonfires.
That seems healthy, doesn't it?
Yeah, they're burning the potential assassin, but I can't remember what it was -- whether he wanted to knock out Parliament altogether or the king or what.
Well, you just missed President's Day here.
We were here for that. President's Sale. Everything seems some excuse to sell something.
Is that your impression of the States?
I think it's a really weird place. I think it's beautiful and ugly. It's frightening. These guys [Groop Dogdrill], someone tried to get in their van at a junction. He obviously wanted to say something to them.
I think New York is excellent. I think it's wonderful how it's so clean, and the people who live there seem to really enjoy living there. I suppose I'm only talking about Manhattan, I don't really know anything about what goes on outside of Manhattan. I would have thought Giuliani's clean-up probably didn't extend all the way, I don't know.
I think every British politician should visit New York and see what positive and active involvement with the municipal planning can do, because our cities are -- London's filthy and getting worse all the time. Manchester's actually had a bit of a clean up in a funny sort of way, it's had a bit of a renaissance of it's own.
Where are you from?
We're from London, and the Drill are northerners, Yorkshire boys from Doncaster. Britain's about 200 miles smaller than California, you know, a pretty tiny place. And there are a lot of people that live there. It's packed, actually -- really packed. We do a lot of tours in Europe and visiting France, and say "Jesus Christ, this place is empty and vast." I would have thought that France was quite small.
Is the EU changing the culture of some of those countries?
Not really, I don't really know what's going on in Europe because of the EU. The effect it's having in Britain is it's making us into a bunch of bitter-minded, thoughtless xenophobes, stuck in our stupid fucking class system. The upper classes, they hate Europe because it invented getting rid of kings and queens, and the working classes hate Europe because they're being constantly reminded that they're working class. You've got to stay working class, otherwise you've got shit food and no money. And the French are really bad at making people have nice towns to live in, and that's the kind of stuff you get -- there's this constant onslaught from the British press and the media about what a shit place Europe is.
Sure, there's crap in Europe and there's lots of right-wingism -- you know it's frightening, the power, the speed at which right-wing politics can take off in a country. France is a tinderbox, but at least there's a sort of municipal sense of well-being, which I don't think is necessarily true in the UK at the moment.
Is that because of the politicians, or...
No one really knows who's in control, right? No one ever did, no one ever does, but everyone thinks that someone must be, so they just let it go. And who's in control at the moment is fucking bloody Rupert Murdoch and his sky empire, really. He owns all the bullshit newspapers, that teach us to be thick and keeps us in vacuous, unintelligent states of mind.
That's no different than here -- Bill Gates probably has more impact on people than Bill Clinton.
Yeah, the two Bills. Money talks, and it's all going to come down one day. I'm not wanting to sound like a bit of a pessimist, but something's going to happen. In the next hundred years, there's going to be some serious shit. I don't know what.
Are the National Front and skinheads still active?
It's kind of teetering away. It's sort of been absorbed a little bit into the general consciousness of the British. I think it's insignificant politically. In fact, there's just been a new law - they worked out the percentages, and they've made it illegal for an ethnic minority of "less than" and they've done it so that all the ethnic minorities aren't affected. The only minority that is affected is the ultra-right.
photo by Frank Mullen
50 Tons of Black Terror
I'm not really too worried about the rise of the right in the UK, but the French -- that is a bit difficult, because there's a lot of them. They're all determined, and the Germans as well. The worst is the former Eastern states. They're really into nazism. Moscow is full of them. Warsaw's full of them. Berlin's got a few. I just can't understand it.
Now that's in Europe, you know, that hasn't happened in the UK yet. There's plenty of racial stuff going on in England. We just got through a really big case when the rotten apples are supposed to have been flushed out of the metropolitan police -- of course, they haven't. There was a murder a long time ago and no one's going to get prosecuted for it.
Didn't you play at a benefit for that?
No, that was a police benefit for an AIDS charity, or was it "age" and not AIDS?
Pete Spiby [Groop Dogdrill]: It was for old people...
Hug [Groop Dogdrill]: Nah, fuck them! [everyone laughs]
How has the tour been so far?
We've played in New York at Brownie's, and D.C. at the Metro. New York was good. D.C. was sad, but we played brilliantly, all of us. It was a really good fun night for us, but there was no one there.
Then we did a place called Wheaton, just outside of DC - remember that? Phantasmagoria -- fantastic place. You've got to visit it just because: one, they know about European beer there on draft, and two, they've got a fantastic vinyl collection there. They must have 10,000 titles. There's a brewer's club there, and a record club, and they do a good gig. Once again, not too many people showed up.
Greenville skate park -- that was brilliant. There was a cancellation, we were supposed to be at Chapel Hill, but they cancelled it. So our tour manager, Eric, rang some of his mates up and said, "Can you find somewhere to put two bands on?" A "have gear, will rock" sort of thing. Well, it turns out there's this great little skate park in North Carolina and it was really good fun! We're playing and these guys are skating around... There was a local band, they weren't so hot, but it's not their fault. We were on first, Groop Dogdrill were after. They sell those big giant bottles of Bud for, like, one dollar twenty. Christ.
Tell me a little about your music -- I listened to the record, and heard a lot of different influences, and different kinds of music. The remixes and the live stuff sounded totally different then the record.
Well, I'll say it straight up about the remixes -- we have no editorial control over that at all. Personally, I don't like it at all on the whole. Although the "White Coal" one is pretty good. It's not my cup of tea, that's all.
Influences? Varied, you know. Massive, really. Basically anything that's ever happened that's been interesting throughout the history of time that made an impression in my memory. I can't specifically say, "Oh, I like the Stooges, or the MC5, or the New York Dolls, Sex Pistols, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, or Blind Lemon," but those are the ones I like. But I like the Smiths and Joy Division, you know. It doesn't really matter, it's just like everything that's ever been good, that's what I say.
People might disagree with me with what I think's good, but on the whole I have found that most people who know a little bit about music tend to corroborate with me about whether it's good or not. And I'm starting to get into some older music, the twenties and even before - I've been listening to some really older stuff. Modern sort of strange classical music, jazz, everything.
I hear a little bit of the Minutemen sort of jazz, too.
Yeah, there's plenty of that going on with us. Our rhythm section is very aware of the dynamic essential. We fuck shit up in a really syncopated way, man. We do. I like them, they're good musicians. I couldn't really speak for them as they're not here, but what I will say is that I know that Graeme (Graeme Flynn, bass) is really into sort of popular, proper, fuck-off disco music sometimes. He's listening to the Weather Girls and all that sort of stuff, and that's great, that's fine. There's nothing wrong with that. Tim's (Tim Cedar, drums) more into loud rock music, and blues. Jon (Jon Free, guitar) really likes old blues, redneck blues, white trash blues, and he likes some of the electronic stuff as well.
You know, we're going to Memphis after this. Sunday night bible belt. Never been there before. Been there in my dreams, I can honestly say. I've been dreaming about going to Memphis since I was about six.
That'll be a momentous occasion...
I hope so.
...or a big letdown.
I'm ready for it.
[shouts to tour manager] Eric, can we go to Tupelo to see the house where Elvis was born? I really want to see that. I need a month really, because I want to drive down to Biloxi. Yeah, that'll be fun.
Looks like you're ready for soundcheck now, is there anything else you'd like to say?
No, nothing in particular... um, nice to meet ya'! What's your name?
Groop Dogdrill may be one of the only bands ever formed through an ad placed in the survivalist's magazine of choice, Guns & Ammo . Their reputation precedes them, like a line of Harleys coming down the street. Tour stories of knife fights and nervous border crossings don't help, either.
On Half Nelson , they're a bit more to the point then their friends in Fifty Tons. "You move like a dancer, and you've got a great ass," he sings on their latest single, "Lovely Skin". The record starts with a sample from what sounds like a grade-B grindhouse skin flick; the whole disk is just about as subtle as a half-nelson, but much more fun.
Singer Pete Spiby sums up their live show this way, "Pretty much like sex, except it lasts more than two minutes." Well, just barely -- that night they tear through their set to a sparse but appreciative crowd; Damo Fowkes wearing his bass slung lower than Dee Dee Ramone ever did, Hug Kelly alternately beating on and standing on his drums, and Pete doing his best to keep up. Before the show, though, Pete talked a bit about the band, while Hug threw in random smart-ass comments...
I've read a lot about you on a web site run by your friend Carlos.
Pete : Oh, Carlos the Jackal? Yeah, sort of a mate of the bass player. He had some photos some people sent from Portugal, which I have yet to see.
photo by Colin Hawkins
There were some pictures of Lemmy and the Mötörhead tour. Was that fun?
Pete : Kind of.
Hug : It was a bit of a letdown, 'cuz when we first heard about it, we thought, "Fuckin' A, we're going to tour with Mötörhead!" It was good, but I think we expected too much, maybe. To start off, most of the gigs were in pretty big places, around 2,000 people. The first two or three gigs were really, really good for us, and after that it kind of wavered between "alright" and "not bad." We were about the same every night, but the audience got to be more hard core Mötörhead fans. I thought it would be like drinking with Lemmy 'til the wee hours and doing all that, but in reality he just stayed in his dressing room and played with his fruit machine.
Pete : We only met him three days before the end of the tour, because we did an interview with a magazine with him at the same time. It turned into a drinking competition just before we went on to play, and after that, he was alright with us. But that was in London, and we only had two gigs after that. And that was it, really.
Some of your songs, like "Jackie O" and "Graceland," seem to relate to American cultural icons.
Pete : I don't know, I suppose Americana has influenced everything, really. Britain has taken on a lot of Americanisms, in culture and fashion and most everything, and because it's such a small place and such a concentrated number of ethnic groups, and I suppose it's just what I've gotten out of the American culture that I'm interested in. From Frank Sinatra onwards, or even before. Films and stuff, and the West, like...
Hug : Who is it in that film The Rat Pack that plays Sammy Davis, Jr? He's like, "Hello, I'm not Sammy Davis, Jr." Ray Liotta is Frank Sinatra, but with slightly less hair, wearing a hat.
Pete : Although the guy who plays Sammy Davis Jr. kind of gets him right, because he's really a bit of a sycophant. He laughs for half an hour after Frank says something relatively funny.
Hug : He wears his eye patch well!
Pete : All the lyrics are metaphors anyway -- some of it's literal, but most of it's metaphoric. Like "Graceland" -- the whole thing about Elvis is that he's supposed to be still alive somewhere, so he's got an empty grave. And there's all these other people that have taken his place. It wasn't specifically an homage to Graceland.
I liked the idea of a famous empty grave, or apparently empty grave. It can be deep, I suppose, but there's nothing too deep about it, not an obsession with America.
Hug : It's like "living in a shack in a one horse down, some guys have a bottle when the sun goes down." I don't have to explain my lyrics, man. [laughs]
Do you get to stop at any of those places?
Hug : We stopped off at a really, really bad thrift store this morning.
Pete : No, we really haven't had a chance to do much, except we had three days in New York, which was good. We'd been there before for about three days, last time we played. It's not like we stay somewhere for a long time because the drives are about five or six hours, usually. You don't get much time, because we're up so late getting drunk that by the time you get up in the morning, everyone's still half-pissed and half-asleep. If we stopped, everyone would just wander off and we'd never get to the gig. So it's only when we've had days off that we can actually do something. I think we get a day off tomorrow -- we're planning on getting a gig in Knoxville on the way to Memphis, but if we don't, then I think we'll just go straight to Memphis. I'd like to have some time to go to Graceland and see Sun Studios and stuff, just for the nostalgia kind of thing.
Hug : We've had a couple of Elvis impersonators support us before. The first time we headlined a show in London, we tried to do something different, and we got a Chinese Elvis!
Pete : This guy from a restaurant who's pretty famous in London, he does karaoke songs in his restaurant while people are in there eating.
Hug : He was a member of the triad gang as well, which is really quite bizarre, the Chinese mafia.
Pete : There were four or five brothers and they all do Elvis impersonations, taking turns.
Hug : We also had a German Elvis impersonator, and the weird thing was if you've ever seen -- wait, what's that film? You know the guy in Quantum Leap , the main star? He was playing Colonel Tom Parker, and it like, "Hello, I'm not Colonel Tom Parker, and I'm not taking care of business," and "Hello, I'm not Priscilla Presley, your wife." and "Thank God for that, I'm not Elvis Presley, either!"
Pete : "I'm not Elvis Presley and I'm not going to thank you very much!"
Hug : "Hello, I've never owned Sun Studios!"
Pete : But, this German Elvis impersonator was so bad...
Hug : He was only bad because he didn't sound German!
Pete : The thing about the Chinese Elvis was that he was singing in this really bad kind of pidgin English, so the German guy we expected to at least have some kind of really bad German accent, but it didn't happen.
Hug : Or just eat sausages or something like that.
I really liked the record , but I was kind of surprised to find two records in my hand on the same day with the word "soiree" in a song title.
Pete : Yeah? Who was that?
You and 50 Tons.
Pete : I don't think they've got Soiree in the title, maybe just something similar.
Hug : Or they just ripped it off.
Pete : I think we recorded both our albums around the same time, about two years ago. And then ironically enough, we both ended up on the same label, and then they released it in America at the same time. We've known them for a long time. Before they signed to Beggar's Banquet we played a handful of gigs with them, and they were asking us what Beggar's were like, because they were thinking of going to another label. We said they were a pretty good label. But they signed to Beggar's and we were on like a subsidiary label in England called Mantra.
Hug : They were asking us on Thursday, and we'd signed Tuesday night. So we're like, "well, they're alright so far. They got us pissed."
photo by Frank Mullen Hug of Groop Dogdrill
What do you think about the reunion tours by the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, and some of those other punk bands?
photo by Frank Mullen
Hug of Groop Dogdrill
Pete : They were all right when they first did what they did, but things have moved on. You've got to be aware of what's already happened, but it seems that they're not doing it for the right reasons.
Hug : I heard the Sex Pistols on the radio when they reformed and played in Finsbury Park, and they just sounded like a pretty tight rock band. That kind of stuff never influenced me in the first place. The first single I got was "Teenage Kicks" by the Undertones, but I never thought of it as a punk band, I just thought they were a pretty cool rock band. I was a bit too young for punk. Somebody played me Never Mind the Bollocks... once, and I thought it was fucking awful, I really did. I know it's not cool to say that, but I thought it was an absolute bore.
Pete : I was almost old enough to appreciate it. My older sisters were into that punk stuff, but I never liked the Sex Pistols. I just thought they were like a rock and roll band. That's basically what they are, just John Lydon singing makes them sound a bit different. The popular punk bands were more like the Stranglers, the Damned, Joy Division, and bands like that.
I think because we've all got older bothers and sisters, we've grown up listening to lots of everything, and then when we had the choice to listen to what we want, and when we got old enough to actually go out and buy records, our taste is completely all over the place.
Hug : The first band I seriously got into were the Smiths. They're one of the only bands you actually like, isn't it?
Pete : Um, yeah...
Hug : Damo hates the Smiths. I fucking love the Smiths.
Pete : I can appreciate them sometimes, but I can't see what the big thing is. They didn't do anything specifically for me as much as...
Hug : Riot?
Pete : ... say, Gene Vincent. Or even Blondie.
Hug : As we speak, Blondie's performing in England. I saw them on TV on this program called Later with Jools Holland , and they did "Rapture," and I was really quite upset, because it's a band that I used to love as a kid. Me and me mate used to have life-sized posters of Debbie Harry on our ceilings. This was before I discovered wanking, obviously, it was a bit early for that. Still, it was better than having a massive poster of Morrissey.
Pete : I think we all went through different phases in life and different sorts of music. Damo was into psychobilly stuff and then he got into Sabbath. The same thing happened to me, I used to listen to the Stones and Beatles, and then I went though a David Bowie period, and then Motown and all that sort of thing, and then when I was older I just got into rock.
Hug : I want to find out which builder actual built Phil Spector's wall of sound.
Charlie : It was O'Connell Construction. They've gone on to great things.
Hug : Oh, did you do the plastering on that?
Charlie : No, I just did the coving...
We'll never learn more about Charlie's career as a plasterer. At this point, the tape ran out, which is just as well, since the conversation devolved into ever-more random jokes and mutterings, followed by sound check, followed by a massive live show. Both bands should be returning to the US later this year, with new records. Watch for them...