Here’s pretty much all I know about Arizona: Alice Cooper has chosen to move there and live out his dotage playing golf and slinging hotdogs; its local sporting club recently lost some sort of athletic event of note; and, mercifully, its senior senator is not our 44th president.
Beyond that, I have no clue how that sunbaked corner of the United States spawned some of the most interesting and challenging metal and hardcore ever set to tape in the shape of Unruh, Wellington and everything that came after. But I should have figured a healthy dose of suburban teenage angst and open minds were part of its roots.
“We were a bunch of skater kids,” said Mike Bjella, bassist for Unruh, Wellington and Black Hell. "Hardly anything was cooler than carving a pentagram or the word ‘fuck’ into a lunch table. Music became something for our angst, we could scream at jocks, skinheads, war, sexism, racism, everything.”
Though Bjealla and guitarist Ryan Butler, the other piston that keeps Phoenix metal firing, would first cross paths playing pop punk, it was sludge trudge trio Wellington that they took their first steps toward crafting some unique and searing in its honesty.
“We loved Dystopia, Rorschach, and Eyehategod and kinda mixed the three,” Butler said. “We just loved sludge and doom.”
The collaboration would ultimately find Bjella upping the tempo when he joined grind and punk progenitors Unruh to write and record the crucial classic Setting Fire to Sinking Ships, which Butler said drew heavily from his love of Assuck, Integrity, Voice of Reason, Entombed and Rorschach.
Part of what seems to make the Copper State’s musical culture so diverse is the pushmi-pullyu dynamic of Butler’s need for grindcore speed and Bjella’s leaden stride to doomsville.
“I can only really speak for Bjella and I, but it's definitely safe to say the we're both into really diverse music,” Butler said. “Obviously we love the heavy stuff more than anything else and I'm way more into death metal and he's way more into stoner rock.”
Their metallic tortoise and hare routine kept them and their co-conspirators from sinking into the same kind of Xerox stagnation that would plague a place like Gothenburg. But the pioneering music of Unruh and Wellington and all that followed can’t be traced back to some specific to Arizona, Bjella said. Instead, it was a case of thinking globally and acting locally.
“We would read about other ‘scenes’ around the country even internationally and we just wanted to become a part of that,” Bjella said. “Not to say it didn't exist in Arizona because it did, there were shows, clubs, bands we just weren't a part of that yet. Eastside records would let us browse the zines and hang out. Bands appearing heavily on my mixtapes were, EHG, Grief, Corrupted, MITB, Dystopia, Carcinogen, Rorshach, Brutal Truth. To me the influences are obvious. We wanted to be metal and our ability made us what it was. So yeah, I think the scene influenced us but it was on a global and personal scale not just something from Arizona.”
That desire for forward thinking experimentation doesn’t stop just because a band has coalesced and its component members have roughly agreed on a sound, Bjella said. No band’s sound is set in stone.
“Black Hell is taking all of our past experiences and influences and approaching that with song writing. The goal is to write songs. We’re trying. There are a lot of personalities and ideas that get involved,” he said. “When you talk about difference between bands wait till you hear how different the new album is compared to the last. A lot of us in the band think if you liked the last album chances are you’re going to hate this one; it’s that different. Hopefully that is not the case.”
Though he may be channeling Earache circa 1989 with day job band Landmine Marathon, Butler, who hopes to release some long shelved songs from a grindcore side project with Phobia’s Shane McLachlan soon, said he’s open to an ever wider array of influences these days, particularly after a long day sitting in the producers chair recording other people’s music.
“If I have to work with some metal band who's not so great for 40 hours, then I'll probably put on some Elliott Smith,” he said. “And sometimes it works the opposite, like, I'm working with the Funeral Pyre right now and they're very good at melodic Swedish black metal riffs and it makes me want to pull out certain records of that style. Generally, though, I won't want to listen to music for a few hours after I work until I've settled down and want to read a book or something. Eight to 10 hours a day of the same songs over and over is often more than enough music for a day.”
Despite that mash of influences, even Butler is at a loss to explain Phoenix’s musical fecundity.
“I don't think there's anything in the water that makes us do varied stuff,” Butler said. “We're just music fans, ya know? Most bands I've started have started with a loose blueprint and generally go in a little different direction, which is only natural.”