Rebooting Project Mersh: Hardcore Punks Threaten Indie Rock's Hold on the Cutting Edge

By ambitiously flexing their fury in the face of hidebound pit bosses, an ever-expanding group of hardcore-punk bands are reshaping the genre. As a result, they're threatening indie rock's precious hold on the cutting edge.

Ceremony / Photo by Ingrid Johansen
Ceremony / Photo by Ingrid Johansen
David Bevan WRITTEN BY
David Bevan

"I've heard so many interviews with Dave Grohl saying, 'Nirvana is a punk band. Period.' But then you hear that Kurt [Cobain] was a huge Aerosmith fan, you know what I mean? Aerosmith sucks." It's March 2012 in Oakland, California, and Rohnert Park punk professors Ceremony are spending their morning in the studio, recording a tribute cover of Nirvana's "Tourette's," an especially indigestive cut from 1993's In Utero. Guitarist Anthony Anzaldo describes the song as that record's most "hardcore," if only because it shares some stylistic bedrock: Searing power chords fly by at blood-blistering speeds, and Cobain's screams are as curdled as you'll ever hear them. And it's with that connection in mind that Anzaldo believes his band was asked to share their own take on a song written by a guy who, in addition to proclaiming his love for the feathered hooks of Aerosmith, also made it a point to don a homemade Flipper T-shirt underneath his similarly iconic cardigans.

Ceremony are descendants of both Nirvana and Flipper in spirit more than sound. While the latter's halting, groundbreaking ooze was a clear deviation from the bull-rushing '80s hardcore blueprint, they still ran full-steam on the same contrarian DIY-punk energy that birthed bands as diverse as Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, the Melvins, and Butthole Surfers. Similarly, Ceremony are one in a spate of young hardcore bands stretching the boundaries of that all-too-slippery genre tag, welcoming outside influences into their distinguishing clatter. These bands are also engaging an audience far larger and more diverse than the often insular scenes that birthed them (much in the same way that Cobain embraced elements of hardcore to conceive his course-changing hybrid). In the past seven years, Ceremony have evolved from teenaged, tantrum-throwing, power-violence brats into a group of studied twentysomethings surging further afield, a transition made all the more clear by the fact that their latest album, Zoo, was released by the storied, pace-setting indie-rock label Matador Records.

"We wrote half the record before we even signed [to Matador]," Anzaldo says of Zoo, an album that boasts the angular clangor of Wire and the Dionysian, psychedelic throb of the Stooges more than, say, Minor Threat's ascetic attack. "To consciously change or alter your sound from what comes naturally because you're worried about what anyone is going to feel, or how many fans you might lose or gain…that's why we're still a punk band. That's why we're still a hardcore band. We've never done that."

While Matador has nurtured the likes of Cat Power and Perfume Genius, whose quiet, chest-pained confessionals, depending on your definition of terms, may be about as "punk" as they come, the label has also been home to plenty of ill-tempered, eye-gouging rock records…including the last two full-lengths by soundscaping Canadian hardcore impressionists Fucked Up. The partnership between Fucked Up and Matador, particularly, has helped to usher in what that band's frontman, Damian "Pink Eyes" Abraham, mischievously calls the "hipster-hardcore advent."

"Certainly, indie rock is at its most banal right now," says Abraham, bluntly. "Nothing against Arcade Fire because they are an unbelievable band, but how many terrible bands that thrive on that sound are we going to have to put up with? So much of indie music is so earnest. There's almost a cynicism in its earnestness because it's so overwrought with fake, over-the-top emotion. I think punk and hardcore is also overwrought with emotion, but it's a lot more honest."

As Fucked Up have added layers of psychedelia and pop operatics, they've transitioned from Toronto DIY outliers to indie-rock heavyweights to openers for Foo Fighters, another band whose hardcore pedigree can't be denied (Grohl played drums in a late-era version of D.C. pioneers Scream, and bassist Nate Mendel played with emocore legends Sunny Day Real Estate and also did time in a Seattle straight-edge crew called Brotherhood).

"We're in a time where a lot of the people who have cultural credibility have come out of backgrounds in punk or hardcore," says Abraham. "One of the best things about [the Toronto scene] was that you could immediately become involved. Because of Web 2.0, we're all able to be involved immediately in whatever music we're into. That DIY ethic gets credited to 'punk,' but let's be honest. It was mainly hardcore. A lot of that has now blossomed outside of that world. Now kids who grew up going to basement shows are playing [this summer's Orion Festival] with Metallica. There's a glitch in the matrix."

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