The Mae Shi: Lock the Skull, Load the Gun [DVD]

The Mae Shi

I’m still dying to see the Mae Shi live.

This jump-cut montage of 30 DIY videos, plus a tour video, provides a few hints of how on fire the LA noise punk band can be, even playing in a downstairs bathroom for a crowd of six paying customers. There are flashes of Ezra, writhing spasmodically to a electrified wire of a beat, as he screeches out verses about vampires, werewolves, errant dolphins and Hieronymous Bosch. You get brief glimpses of the brothers Byron, Tim sardonically laying back on bass as Jeff pounds and flails and pogos on guitar. You catch a few strobe-lit revelations of Brad Breeck, sticks bouncing up to neck level, head jerking side to side in time, frantic-ness frozen in stop-motion time. But mostly what you get here are filmed and animated interpretations of the Mae Shi’s Terrorbird album, and an intermittently entertaining road movie that shows, among other things, Jeff Byron lighting a firecracker in his mouth. There’s no conventional, continuous footage of what looks like a fantastic live band playing, but then, the Mae Shi have never done a conventional, continuous things in their lives.

This is, after all, the band that made its name with a mix CD composed of hundreds of tiny shards of popular songs — a second or two of Led Zeppelin next to an equally brief segment of under-the-radar punk — and with the brief, turbocharged Terrorbird whose shortest song clocked in at four seconds. Their live show, I’ve heard, always ends with the band passing out instruments to the audience. A friend of mine says one of his best show experiences ever was playing Tim Byron’s bass for a few minutes in this cacophonous finish. But, hold on. Don’t get excited. You’re not going to see much of that on the DVD. Aside from brief performances integrated into “Virgin Diet” and a few other videos, these films are mostly conceptual treatments of songs.

Not that it’s not entertaining. Someone in the band can really draw, and the band’s art-school-confidential animated videos range from mildly entertaining to disturbingly beautiful. The best ones will remind you a bit of Maurice Sendak — the first version of “Body 2,” is a melancholy fairytale in charcoal shadings. It shows a boy turned into a werewolf who kidnaps a young girl and loses her to a larger monster. Werewolves, like vampires, are metaphors for sexuality, clearly; but they are monsters, too, viewed with the fascination and awe that children have for scary creatures. Later, a dark cartoon video for “V. Beats” has the same poetic feel, as a dark haired girl transforms into a vampire and is swallowed whole by a larger monster. And there’s a very funny treatment of “Chop 2,” early on in the DVD, where the cuts’ fractious yelps are timed to match a creature shot out of a cannon and careening into telephone poles (“aaak!”) and thumping down stairs (“aaak!”).

The filmed videos are mostly less successful. “Do This” would a very by-the-numbers video of a band riding around in a car, pointing the camera out the window, if it were not yelped and screamed so urgently, to jerky images of people moving accidentally in time to the beat. The video for “Vampire Zoo” is more amusing in concept than in practice, as it matches the Mae Shi’s way-out noise punk to footage of a blue-collar karaoke night. There are overweight women in football jerseys, skinny mustachio’d men in truckers’ caps, and ugliness everywhere. And the band tries twice to set its “Body” songs to story-boarded images, a corpse-bride rising from a grave in one, a girl chased by some sort of vampire/angel in another, but it always seems too literal. By far the most disturbing piece, though, is the second treatment of “Megamouth,” where band members create weirdly off, upside-down faces by drawing eyes and nose on their chins and covering their eyes. Their mouths move bizarrely, lip-syncing lyrics, licking oranges, eating…vaguely sexual, inhuman and hard to look at.

“Takoma the Dolphin is AWOL,” arguably the Mae Shi’s best, most accessible song off Terrorbird, gets two separate treatments, the first overly literal and acted out, the second staged with molded plastic figures of dolphins and army personnel. Neither, to my mind, adds much to the song, which has its narrative — about a dolphin trained to sniff out underwater mines who escapes the Navy — built in.

The tour video is, by turns, very funny and embarrassingly low-end. There’s footage of some awful opening bands — Explogasm’s phallo-centric show, another outfit called I Hate You When You’re Pregnant — and the usual shots of band members sleeping through the long drives. You see one underage fan who has been sneaked into a show somewhere in the Midwest when the band claimed he played the electric sign flashing above his head. Tour partners Rapider Than Horsepower make brief appearances, both onstage and, weirdly, singing “Row Row Row Your Boat” with the Mae Shi somewhere in Boston. The band climbs a mountain in Colorado and lights the previous mentioned fireworks somewhere in Arizona. They play in front of small crowds at house parties, in art galleries, at a toga party (where the rest of the band wears togas, but Ezra appears to be completely naked) and in a cereal factory. You watch the video, and it looks like fun about 10% of the time, and the other 90% accounts for why so many excellent bands break up. There is very little footage of the Mae Shi actually playing, except at the end, when they return to LA, and, by all evidence, rock the shit out of The Smell.

Lock the Skull, Load the Gun — the name comes from a pinball machine game, by the way — is a mildly entertaining work from one of the smartest, most interesting bands to come out of the noise punk scene. Buy Terrorbird or the even better Heartbeeps, or go to a show. This is window dressing.