The White Underbelly of Dark Meat
“They wanted to see something different, but something different saw them first.”
This is the tagline from The Hills Have Eyes, but it’s also is an apt description of a given audience at a Dark Meat show.
As the mainstream music industry is experiencing radical change and/or utter meltdown, an enclave of garish miscreants lurks in the humid hills of Athens, Georgia, unaffected by these whirlwind changes. Should your figurative Winnebago break down in front of the 40 Watt or any number of Athens-area rock clubs and art spaces, be prepared. Dark Meat isn’t a group of inbred mountainfolk with a taste for human flesh, but its sound is close enough.
Initially started as a Neil Young cover band to make extra money at local frat bars, the band scrapped this plan after three practices in favor of original material. Now, Dark Meat is used to having more people performing onstage than in their audiences. This says less about the size of the audience than it does about the size of their band—sometimes two-dozen people might be performing at once. In true Athens fashion, Dark Meat has erupted into a massive, snarling ensemble.
Even the band’s name doesn’t come easily. The Dark Meat moniker only applies to the “core” of the band, which includes front man/ringleader Jim McHugh, guitarist Ben Clack, drummers Jason Robira and Forrest Leffer, and guitarist Kris Deason. The other two sections are the “Sub-Tweeters” (a vocal group) and the “Vomit Lasers”, the horn and string section. Onstage, these segments (and any assorted hangers-on) form like Voltron and are officially titled Dark Meat Vomit Lasers Family Band Galaxy.
If nothing else, Jim McHugh exudes a perverse joy in the oddball life he has forged for himself and his bandmates. Nothing about his band is ordinary, and he takes immense pride in that knowledge. Every last detail—even the tour bus—is a non sequitur. As he walks toward their bus, he proudly provides its unique history.
”Well, this is the van from the movie We Are Marshall,” he says. “We found it in a field. A guy wanted to dissect it and sell it for parts, but we rescued it and welded in a bunch of bunks. It sleeps twelve, but we have seventeen people in the band right now.”
Dark Meat is currently steering that rattling Hollywood throwaway prop across America, terrorizing towns from sea to shining sea, vanishing in a cloud of pot fumes and diesel exhaust.
It might seem easy to lump Dark Meat into the “freak folk” or New Weird America movements. In fact, the connection is stupidly clear at first. Universal Indians, the band’s debut, might be the most expository album title since Straight Outta Compton.
On the surface is a rag-tag, psyched-out rock volcano. Two drummers, costumes, droning freakouts—Dark Meat even cover the songs of legendary free-jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler (the liner notes dedicate Indians to his “Holy Ghost”). Their long-haired, rambling aesthetic echoes Brightblack Morning Light, while their penchant for robes and face paint could inspire connections to psychedelic brethren Polyphonic Spree. Further still, their improvised storms of squealing feedback allows them to comfortably share a bill with Akron/Family or Ariel Pink.
However, trying to wrap up Dark Meat in a convenient, trendy moniker is a ham-fisted operation at best. They may have a member who wears fairy wings and beats a piccolo snare among the audience, but don’t confuse Dark Meat with your typical blissed-out flower children.
“We’re a punk rock band at heart, man. People may think we look like hippies, but we might as well be Black Flag,” McHugh says.
Like most aspects of Dark Meat, this is only partly true.
The band sounds like Iggy Pop conducting the Polyphonic Spree, if they were all, coincidentally, members of the Manson Family. McHugh himself looks like an art project hiding behind a pair of amber-lens aviators and long, dirty (the filth, not the color) blond hair.
Shows start relatively normally, ignoring the onstage army. Considering the sheer undertaking involved, set up is speedy. Sound checks are a rarity. The only rule is that improvisation and chaos rule. Though songs have a fixed location in the set list, individual song choice is “felt” rather than determined on any given night.
A few minutes in, the audience is indoctrinated, swilling the Dark Meat Kool-Aid. Suddenly, show-goers have transformed into full-blown Universal Indians, swaying and lumbering like a field of Thriller-esque zombies. Songs build and melt down into 15-minute squalls of beautiful, psycho-jazz cacophony. The sound that Dark Meat produces could easily be achieved with a half-dozen people, but that isn’t the point.
“If anything our band is about pushing everything.” McHugh says. “Membership-wise, itinerary-wise, musically, personality-wise, emotionally—pretty much it’s all about pushing towards some extreme, so that’s sort of our M.O.”
But the punk rock really comes in the moment they leave the stage.
“You’ve got to understand that we’re sleeping in fields,” McHugh explains.
“We don’t get hotels. Since we can’t all sleep in the van, we’re camping in Eckerd’s parking lots. We cook on a camp stove in a parking lot. We’re all great friends and that’s why we do it, but there’s no ‘rock star’ anything to this.”
Again, this is only partly true.
For all of Dark Meat’s DIY obscurity, they sat in the upper echelon of buzz bands at this year’s South-by-Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. On the one hand, SXSW is, in McHugh’s words, a “business trip.”
“It’s exposure,” he said. “South-by-Southwest resulted in a fully-paid European tour. We’re doing that because a promoter saw us. Last year, that was how we found our booking agent. You go down there with the express purpose of accomplishing band-oriented business goals, which is about as fun as that sounds.”
On the other hand, it’s a different kind of trip altogether. One of the eight Dark Meat shows that week was a song-by-song performance of Iggy & the Stooges’ landmark album Fun House, and that title tells you everything about how the show unfolded (or better yet, unraveled)
“Well, we had already performed earlier in the day, then somebody gave us acid, so we decided to take it. I was frying, man. I smashed all this stuff. I almost tore the roof down. I think I probably would’ve made Iggy proud.”
Later that week, Dark Meat played what McHugh called “the best show I’ve ever seen or played.”
“It was about 2,000 people. We played at 3 AM, we got crowd surfed, women were trying to tear my clothes off. It’s the kind of shit you live for.”
Free drugs, Stooges covers, and women tearing your clothes off? That’s quite a “business trip.”
When first tasting Dark Meat, it’s important to have big ears as open to new sounds as possible. You need the sheer aural real estate, because otherwise it’s tough to fully absorb the impending longhaired hurricane. Rest assured, nothing sounds quite like them. As you descend into their lair of chaos and freakishness, prepare for unbridled, dirty sonic bliss. Dig beneath the grime and distortion, and you will strike it rich—free-jazz, acid-rock diamonds blanketed in punk rock coal.
Above all, remember what your grandmother always told you at the Thanksgiving table—Dark Meat is an acquired taste.