- The dandy lads of Proletarian Art Threat are all smiles, despite their pathetic outlook
Teenage Grandpa is sitting on an old dirty couch in the basement of Speak in Tongues, Cleveland's punk rock, avant-jazz, experimental art venue/crash pad. There's an ashtray spilled on the floor, and the place smells vaguely of urine. Teenage Grandpa makes a move toward cleaning up the ashes, then sits back down, apparently deciding it's not worth the effort.
"I'm a good example of someone who was completely manipulated by society," he says, looking over at bandmate Asthmatic Enemy of God as if challenging him on whose view is the darkest. "I was screwed from the get-go."
Grandpa and Asthmatic, along with Octane and the Fabulous (their real names are "kept secret to protect the innocent"), are the angry minds and disillusioned souls behind Proletarian Art Threat, Cleveland's semi-hardcore, intellectual, oftentimes funny-as-hell punk band.
"We like to laugh," maintains Asthmatic, the band's guitarist and self-described marginalized geek. "At a recent music awards thing, we got nominated as a hardcore band, which made me go what? It's the most humorless genre. I mean, we're definitely inspired by that and love it, but you're not going to see us in baggy shorts being all like 'roar!'" While their music is definitely angry and bitter, they use black humor to go beyond just screaming their rage.
"Our music reflects the stifled bleak reality that artists face, waking up every day," says Grandpa. "That's what it's like to be here. It's painful. It's scary. It's crass. It's ugly. It's full of tension and rage. It's dirty. Music reflects life."
Art Threat's response to a dark life is to be creative. The band's philosophy is think for yourself, even if it doesn't make a bit of difference. "Most of what gets called culture is basically something that is a top-down construction created for us, sold to us, often after basically being hijacked from us," says Asthmatic. "The thinking behind the band is, aesthetics belongs to everybody."
Made up of former members of Biblical Proof of UFOs and the Conservatives, the group came together after the guitarist of the Conservatives quit. With a gig still to perform, the leftover Conservatives grabbed some players from Biblical Proof of UFOs for a one-time performance, but after their rehearsal turned into a songwriting session, group members decided to abandon their former bands and form Proletarian Art Threat.
The band recently put out a five-song CD, but like most things in the make-it-on-your-own world of punk rock, it wasn't easy.
"Someone was supposed to put out the disc a year ago," laments Asthmatic. But the owner of the label wrecked his car. "He couldn't afford to put out records for a while, because he had to save up for a new car." The band eventually got the disc out on another label, but by then, their lead singer had quit. "Since then, with Gramps on vocals, we tried doing those songs, and it wasn't working out, so we wrote a whole new set."
The new set is loud and raw, but with a catchy, almost pop quality that further distances the group from traditional hardcore. The songs are attitude and anger, roughly tuned. The band is not content to just let the drums and bass chug along as Grandpa screams at the top of his lungs. "Mr. Personality" has a hard, heavy, and catchy guitar line reminiscent of Black Sabbath, backed with driving drums and smart lyrics. In "Iron Mouse," band members acknowledge that, while they will never have the arena-rock following of bands like Sabbath, they're capable of rocking just as hard. Their outlook might be bleak, but they make sure the audience enjoys the ride.
The band is very aware of where it stands in an increasingly corporate world, a world where punk-style rebellion is a marketing tool for soda pop and video games. "At some point in our adolescence, we all believed that culture is revolution," says Grandpa. "That idea is obviously ludicrous."
Also ludicrous is the idea that you can make a living as a punk rocker. As Art Threat sees it, poverty is the price the culture makes you pay for not staying within your assigned slot. "The economic sanctions of being nonparticipatory are really fucking atrocious," rails Asthmatic. "Does anyone in this Speak in Tongues world we've made for ourselves have a fuckin' nickel?"
So why do they keep doing it? "I haven't figured out what else to do," says Grandpa. "Anger. I feel trapped. I really do. Trapped by culture, trapped by a manufactured identity, trapped by a lack of options."
Asthmatic has a slightly more positive view.
"When you got a really good show and everything clicks, it goes way beyond you. It's synergy, becoming more than the sum of the parts. It really does become something special."