In 1999, on a mid-summer’s eve, a small tornado formed in rural Wayne County, Ohio. Weaving a path across farm land, the storm took down a small tower which held equipment for local radio services, including the transmitter of WCWS, the campus station a nearby liberal arts college, The College of Wooster. The cost and process of replacing the transmitter delayed the return of college radio and so the campus found itself without one of its main outlets for musical exploration and expression.
For Matt King, Ryan Hanson, and myself, this was an inauspicious start to our senior year. Matt was to be the station manager and Ryan and I were long-tenured DJs; the station was an outlet for our creativity and a resource for our exploration of new music.
Luckily, we quickly found a new outlet for our musical explorations. Teaming up with our classmate and good friend, Aaron Vasquez, we decided to start a band. The sum of our musical abilities? Matt could play a guitar and we all knew the words to “Free Fallin’.” Thankfully, we pinned our hopes to two first-year students, Peter King and Nick Hanson. Peter happened to be Matt’s brother and a talented musician who had played in talented bands back home in Indianapolis, especially the formidable, hummable Impossible Shapes (1); Nick happened to be Ryan’s brother and a talented drummer who had played with interesting bands back home in Cleveland, especially the terrifying, lovable Happy Rainbow Death (2).
The beginnings were humble and so were our gear and our ambitions. Pete and Matt had acoustic guitars; Pete’s had nylon strings. I owned a bass and a banjo, but could play neither. We had no mikes, no amps, no drums. At our first practice we wrote a few songs, learned a few covers, and made ready to have a party on the first weekend of the school year. We played in the living room of Aaron’s and my house. Nick had no drums, so he banged on pots and pans. I think Aaron held my bass and pretended to play it. I think we sang one or two of our own songs and a cover of “Going to Kansas City.”(3) When a noise complaint was filed by our neighbors the police showed up; we played “Free Fallin’” and called it a night. Humble and ramshackle. But fun. The next morning a friend told me that one of our songs annoyed him yet stuck in his head. An endorsement?
At some point soon after that performance we got a bit more serious. At Ryan’s suggestion we recruited Justin Elliot, another WCWS DJ who played guitar. Nick brought his drums down from Cleveland. We found some mikes. We wrote more songs. Soon after we played a second show, a larger show, which we billed as The Heavy Metal Vomit Party. Playing in the corner of our basement with a full drum kit, two acoustic guitars and one electric guitar, and with introductions by our good friend Jack Pitney (4), that show was recorded for posterity and we offer it here for you to enjoy and cherish. There were other shows that year including performances opening for the campus improve group (5), at a fraternity party (6), and on the campus holiday “I.S. Monday” (7). I don’t know that any of them topped The Heavy Metal Vomit Party for enthusiasm, energy, or fun.
In the Spring semester we lost Justin, who spent the term in Scotland, but soldiered ahead and set about recording a proper “album.” Using cast-off mikes, a small amp, and his computer, Nick set up a small recording studio in our house. The set up allowed us to record ourselves and do some basic effects and editing. We then burned the album on external C.D. burners; if memory serves we sold all 100 copies in one or two days.
The name of the record, Our Cubehouse Still Rocks, is a line from Finnegan’s Wake. Matt came across it during a James Joyce seminar we took that Fall and immediately identified as a perfect title for an album. (8)
In retrospect, our song-writing was weakest when we attempted to write “real” songs with “real” subjects. The album opener, “Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny” takes its title from a Mothers of Invention Song and is meant to be a dialogue between a young boy and a robot or alien who has crashed to Earth. At least I think that’s what it was meant to be about. We often referred to it as “the ooh-ahh-ooh song” and it is the chirping refrain that most people remember best. The second song “Loser” is about real people with whom we went to college. I regret the mean spirit and the juvenile lyrics, but it has some clever lines. Similarly, I have to remind myself that “I Got What it Takes” and “Hey, Foxes” were written by very young men who senses of humor were not quite fully matured.
I think we were at our best when we embraced our shabbiness, sloppiness and enthusiasm. “Matador,” “Truckasaurus,” “PDF Theme Song,” “Drink to Pity da Fool” and “Heavy Metal Vomit Party”(9) are barely formed, full-speed nonsense which I loved making and still enjoy hearing. (10) “Trumpet True,” “Lightning Bolt,” and “The Farm,” are slower and goofier but equally enjoyable. “Lightning Bold” or “The Farm” never had set lyrics; instead we took turns riffing on a beat or a joke and tried to one-up each other.
For me, the two songs that hold up best are “Elian” and “Robot Railroad.” Admittedly, Elian Gonzalez is a dated reference and some of the jokes are tasteless. (11) But the two songs have a simple but catchy structure; the lyrics work and the vocal arrangements are almost there; and I really like the breakdown on “Elian” and Pete’s guitar playing on “Robot Railroad.”
As a musical document this record has small nuggets of harmony to recommend it. As an archive, it is the truest repository of my youth. And, as a document of joyous play, it is an essay in defense of the liberal arts.
[Matt Barbee wrote this article.]