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Listening to Black Flag and the Byrds with Brian Walsby

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Some Walsby tunes

Some Walsby 'toons
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22 Years! 14 Bands!

Patty Duke Syndrome


Double Negative

My First Orgasm

Two guitars spear the speakers, and that beat—a procession of tom rolls punctuated each meter by a kick drum—thuds deeply. "Look into my eyes/ Don't you trust me?/ You're so good/ You could go far," sings Kim Gordon, opening the 11th track on the 1988 masterpiece from her band Sonic Youth.

"'Kissability' from Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth. It's a good song," says Brian Walsby, his hands folded atop a kitchen table, the smile of familiarity tugging upward on the corners of his mouth. "I saw them at The Brewery on this tour. They smoked. They were amazing. It was the one time I really saw them and they really just completely kicked ass. They were great."

Walsby—a former Iron Maiden zealot who'd recently fallen into hardcore punk—moved to North Carolina two years before that show from his childhood home in California. Raleigh pen pals and his newfound devotion to Corrosion of Conformity, who made The Brewery an unofficial home during the '80s, attracted him east, where he's lived ever since. Aside from drumming in more than a dozen rock bands since his arrival—among them, the recently revived Polvo, Patty Duke Syndrome with Ryan Adams, Wwax with Mac McCaughan, his current hardcore band Double Negative—Walsby has long chronicled his adventures in and observations of rock 'n' roll in black-and-white, ink-and-paper cartoons.

Manchild 4: Ridin' Them Coattails, his fourth book of such work, attempts to reconcile his feelings with those more famous folks he's worked with along the way. That way, one day he'll be able to compile a book that, as he puts it, won't make him seem like such a curmudgeon. After all, Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore, frequently ribbed in print by Walsby, has been reading.

"Thurston Moore walked by my merch table at one of All Tomorrow's Parties," recalls Walsby of the British festival, adjusting his thin-framed glasses and ruffling his gray-specked brown hair. "He walked by, looked at me and said, 'I like your stuff.' I said, 'Thanks,' and he kept walking. You know I always wonder if I'm going to get someone who's going to come up to me and beat me up or whatever."

Well, let's hope neither David Crosby nor Celtic Frost come to town anytime soon.

"I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better"
[1965 jangle-and-harmony masterpiece, an ode to Walsby's homestate of California and the early hit of his favorite writer, Gene Clark]

BRIAN WALSBY: I love The Byrds. I like The Byrds up until they grew beards just after Sweethearts of the Rodeo. I've been a little too scared to investigate the bearded Byrds. I love all the Gene Clark stuff from the first two records. I think he was definitely the best songwriter out of all the Byrds, easily.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Did you first hear them in California or after you moved to North Carolina?

People like Scott Williams [Double Negative guitarist and longtime Walsby friend] tried to turn me onto them, but he always likes to remind me that I wasn't into it at the time. I kind of got into it later than when I moved out here. It's the Gene Clark-led Byrds that got my attention initially. But David Crosby, excellent harmony singer? I don't know what else really, but excellent harmony singer. [Laughs.] Chris Hillman turned into a really good songwriter and is as good as Paul McCartney as a bass player. And the drummer looked like Brian Jones. Thumbs up to Gene Clark. Not a good role model for anyone to pattern your life after but definitely an excellent songwriter and a tragic figure. Everyone loves that, of course.

Even though he's a tragic figure, his acknowledged legacy is still pretty slight.

I think he's just kind of forgotten. To the people that he used to play with, apparently, he was kind of a pain in the ass. He died, and—as time has gone on—a lot of the people he's played with have definitely paid a lot of lip service to how good he is, including David Crosby and Roger McGuinn. I think they didn't really acknowledge that he was really the best one out of all of them as far as a songwriter goes. I don't think they liked some of his stuff because he was still writing about boy-girl stuff, and they were all into cosmic bullshit.

"Six Pack"
[From Black Flag's seminal 1981 album, Damaged, this third track on Side One is a perfect mess of tension and gang vocals]

Well, what can I really say about them that I haven't said in four books? Henry Rollins gets a bad rap. I think he's easy to hate because he's successful, and people don't like that.

Unlike Gene Clark, there's not much that's tragic about Henry Rollins.

No, Henry Rollins is nothing like Gene Clark. He's not working construction. He's not a drug addict. He's not an alcoholic. He sang on this record and he sang on My War. Those are two of my favorite records, especially My War. I can't imagine anyone else singing on that record. This stuff still holds up. It's great rock 'n' roll like The Stooges or anything that's considered great.

How did you first find this record?

The same way anybody else did. I just walked in the store and saw it and said, "This looks pretty weird."

And you were aware of the band before that?

I was aware of them for quite a while and heard a little bit of it and was already shocked. When I got this record, I liked it so much that I didn't even get to the second side of the record until, like, a week later. I just played the first side over and over. [In punk rock before Black Flag], you had to look a certain way. I realized pretty early on that that didn't really matter. They were the first people to look like regular normal people or grow their hair out. Dez Cadena was the first person in punk rock to have long hair and a beard. No one really did that. It was part of the imaginary rules that were already in place. I thought that was cool because I was never going to look convincing in a mohawk. It never even entered my mind to try that. I knew what I looked like.

Were you shocked because they broke so many rules, from fashion to music?

It just seemed a lot more tense and real than everything else. Even as a know-nothing high school student, it sort of articulated some degree of alienation and rage that I felt or thought I felt. It's pandering to the lowest common denominator, yes, but alienation and rage are never going to go out of style or be something that isn't going to affect somebody. There's like this cleansing-ness to it, where—when you're a teenager or a youngster or me now—you put on something on, and it just makes you feel better. It's extreme. It still holds up. Nobody really sounds like them. And if I need a T-shirt, I can just go to Hot Topic and pick one up. I'll get my nephew to do that.

"Six Pack"
[A cover of the Black Flag tune written by New York bandleader Dave Longstreth from memory; wildly different from the original, it ricochets across Saharan guitar intervals and into angelic female backing vocals]

Is this, like, Morrissey when he was retarded?

Singing is a guy named Dave Longstreth, who's long led a band called The Dirty Projectors.

I don't know anything about it.

This is from an album called Rise Above, and this is a cover of Black Flag's "Six Pack." He was a Black Flag fan growing up, and this is his reinterpretation of the album from memory.

Oh, wow. This song is totally unrecognizable. I think it's really good. I mean, just the idea of it. I guess I don't want to be the person to say, "If you cover a song, you should really make it your own," but I guess that's what he did. I mean I can't even pick out the lyrics to "Six Pack" because it's throwing me off so much. I've got to give this a thumbs up. I don't even recognize it.

"We Destroy the Family"
[A cover of the song by the California hardcore band Fear, by Georgia metal weirdos Harvey Milk; this version of the band features Joe Preston, a former member of Walsby's employers, the Melvins]

This is a song by the band Fear, called "We Destroy the Family," which is one of the weird, trickier ones off of the record. This is probably a cover by someone that I wouldn't like very much.

Harvey Milk.

[Laughs.] Oh see, I was right.

It's also Harvey Milk featuring fourth member Joe Preston, a one-time member of the Melvins.

Those guys are all really nice. [Laughs.] Well you can't like everything I guess.

Did you first hear Fear in California?

Yeah, I was a little kid. I was kind of let down actually by Fear because it was the second or third record of its kind that I bought. There's definitely some good stuff on it, but after hearing Black Flag's Damaged, it seemed kind of slick.

You bought Damaged before you bought Fear's The Record?

I sure did. It kind of paled in comparison.

As a fan of the Melvins, what's it been like watching them go through so many alternate members and bass players? And what happened to Joe Preston in that band?

I think what it was is that he was a super huge fan, just like me, from a long time ago. He really thought very highly of what they did from early on. He got a chance to join his favorite band, and—for whatever reason—it just didn't work out. Kind of like when a relationship goes bad and you sort of withdraw from it.

High on Fire, Sunn O))), Thrones, Harvey Milk. He's managed to do OK since, it seems.

He doesn't seem to stick with anything very long. I think he just likes to do stuff by himself. And he likes facial hair. And he looks like Al Franken. He should run for Senate or something. That's really funny that you [knew] this is somebody that I don't like. "Harvey Milk. Oh, there you go."

"Morbid Tales"
[The title track from the U.S. version of the Swiss band's first record; a bit like death metal and a bit like hardcore, "Morbid Tales" marches with a straightforward fury before assaulting a double kick drum and a left-field guitar solo]

Sounds like a metal song. This is when I offend somebody.

Go for it. This is the first Celtic Frost album.

I like the idea of Celtic Frost more than I actually like listening to them, kind of like how I like the idea of Slayer more than actually listening to them. Celtic Frost and Slayer don't make up each amount of my daily listening experience. But I love the idea of Celtic Frost and Slayer, and I have a lot of fond memories attached to this stuff.

Iron Maiden was your band of choice before Black Flag, correct?

Iron Maiden was the fastest, most intense music I'd ever heard. Their first couple of records, I was like, "Whoa, I don't believe this." I really like Voivod a lot. They're probably my favorite metal band. They're really weird. I don't really care for any of that posing-in-the-snow, corpse-paint bullshit. I can see why people would like it but, it's just like, "OK, you're extreme. Who cares?" I mean like the idea of this is really cool, but...

Is it the structure? The hooks or lack thereof? Just the way it sounds?

It's kind of like listening to this now makes me think of when I listened to KISS when I was 16 years old and thinking it was really badass. I think heavy metal is probably the most disposable form of rock music there is. When I used to work at Schoolkids Records, I was amazed by all these super agro-metal heads who would buy every fucking extreme metal CD they could no matter how generic it was. And a few weeks later they would always bring back a big stack of all of them and get more.

I hated stuff like Possessed when it came out. They had this stupid record called Seven Churches that's just fucking retarded. I saw that band a couple of times and they sucked. People now think it's just some absolute masterpiece, and it's this piece of garbage. It's really funny what time does for stuff like that. "It's a fucking classic!"

"Love Like the Movies"
[An early cut that's become a live staple for Concord's Avett Bros., "Love Like the Movies"—like the earlier Byrds tune—recalls the regret and relief of a relationship that's seen better days]

They're like one of the biggest things in the world right now, aren't they?

They're seem to be headed that way: Major-label deal and really big crowds they've earned through touring persistently.

I've had limited exposure, and I could've had more if I played more of what was burnt for me or offered to me. I remember thinking it was good. Charles [Cardello, co-owner of Bifocal Media, which releases Walsby's books] really likes them a lot. Now I feel like an idiot. I feel like I should know more about this band and champion them because it does sound like stuff that I would probably like.

In a sense, a song like this shares a kinship with The Byrds and Gene Clark. It's a song for a girl, and the form of it all could be from any time after rock 'n' roll hit.

It's good music from another time period.

What would Brian Walsby 20 years ago have said to Brian Walsby now for liking country music?

He would've kicked me in the nuts. I mean, you can't listen to the same thing forever.

In this book, especially in the cartoon about being an older guy in a punk band, you seem to take on that kind of orthodoxy in the scene.

I've got to say, for the future books, I'm trying to not be so negative. Some people think the negativity is really funny. I'm not trying to really alienate people like Hank Williams, the local punk show promoter, when he finally reads it and sees that I drew him.

You drew him fairly accurately, too.

I think I had some misgivings about our place in that whole hardcore scene, and I guess I was just bumming on everyone's parade. I was probably taking a good thing and finding the few negative things about it and making fun of myself at the same time. I really do like what we do and everything, but I'd be a liar if I didn't say that sometimes it would just be nice to play a Gene Clark song and not play screaming, loud music. But it's not that kind of band. You know the great things about it are those youngsters are very enthusiastic, and I can't think of a band I've been in where people actually bother to know the singer's words and care so much about it and get into it so much. But sometimes, being old and cynical, you can learn to despise the youthful energy around you, especially when you're not being paid and you've done 8,000 house parties and every band seems to sound the same.

Is it frustrating to hear new bands do what you've heard for two decades?

It's not really frustrating. I mean, ultimately you're there for yourself first, and hopefully you'll have a good time. You want everyone to have a good time, too. Even with cartoons like that, it's not like I want to tell people what to do. I used to hate going to see bands and them telling people what to do: "Come on everybody, clap your hands. Come on everybody, let's boogie. Come on everybody, put your fingers up!" I've always hated that shit. If you want to do it, great, but it's like I saw Richard Thompson and people gave him two sincere standing ovations. It wasn't like he went up there and said, "Hey, everybody, I'm done. Give me a standing ovation. Give me two." It seemed sincere and he was great, but I didn't stand up. I felt like I was at a high school pep rally or something.

"Hyper Enough"
[The lead cut from 1995's Here's Where the Strings Come; a blistering tune howled by Mac McCaughan, who Walsby played with in pre-Chunk act Wwax]

I haven't seen or heard Superchunk since their second album. I don't know anything about it since—what's it, No Pocky for Kitty? How long ago was that?


Well, as you know, I put Mac [McCaughan, Superchunk frontman] on the cover with all the other people whose names I'm forever linked via press blurbs. The Ridin' the Coattails thing is sort of a joke. There's a cartoon in my book about me admitting how stupid it was that I harbored any kind of pettiness or bitterness toward my fellow friends in music, and it's probably another example of just, "God, I was an idiot." Mac just reissued the Wwax stuff that we did. I thought that was really cool. There's like a Merge Records book coming out, too. He's a hard worker, you know? He's always been a really nice guy.

How'd you guys meet?

I think I met him through Wayne Taylor while he was around. I think he played guitar in this really horrible band called A Number of Things, and I did their album cover.

They were from Chapel Hill. This was before the whole Chapel Hill thing. '88 or '87 maybe, and Mac was their second guitar player. He had super-long dreaded hair and was the only person in that band that seemed like he was interested in being there.

I just look back at that being kind of young and maybe thinking it all mattered. I was just pointing out how stupid that was. I think that's nothing new. I think you see that all the time. I don't know what those people are going to think when they read that. They might be like, "We know." So, another getting-it-off-my-chest cartoon about something that doesn't really matter in this day and age that I'm probably going to forget about.

Walsby's Double Negative plays Local 506 with Valient Thorr Thursday, April 30, at 10 p.m. Tickets are $8-$10. Walsby's books, prints and T-shirts are on display and for sale at a show at Wootini in Carrboro through May 5. The books are also available at Walsby blogs at Introverted Loudmouth, Nice Guy (

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