Icon for the Unknownby Andrei van Wyk / 28.02.2012
Since 1991, Justin Pearson has been an ‘icon for the unknown’. Though not a pop star, he can be confidently cited as one of the most influential figures in the underground punk and metal scene. With bands such as Swing Kids, super group Head Wound City and The Locust amongst others, Pearson was highly instrumental in the development of such genres as noise rock, mathcore and grind. Born in “Shit Creek Phoenix, Arizona” he moved with his mother to San Diego, after his father was murdered. In 1994 he formed The Swing Kids, who are credited as one of the creators, amongst At the Drive in and Drive like Jehu, of modern hardcore punk known as ‘post-hardcore’. After the demise of The Swing Kids he went on to start his own record label, Three One G, and form the innovative act The Locust. We talk to him about punk, synthesizers, shitty indie record labels and full body suits.
Mahala: When did your interest in music begin? Was there a particular point in your life which led you to latch onto the mentality and message in punk and hardcore music in particular?
Justin Pearson: I remember being intrigued or at least interested in music as early as I can remember. When I was about 5 I was obsessed with Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” and then when Van Halen’s 1984 came out, I was 9 and completely obsessed with that album. Sooner after that I got my shit together and discovered better music and pushed forward. But it was around age ten for me, where I really was able to wrap my head around punk and, more so, punk ethics. As cheesy as it sounds, I don’t think I had any choice. Therefore, punk essentially raised me.
You emerged out of the San Diego Punk scene in the early 90’s. In your view, what differentiated San Diego Punk from the Punk coming out of Los Angeles or New York, or even Europe?
With San Diego, we had (and still have) all of these pseudo- right wing ideals, corrupt politicians, hostile race relations, and an overwhelming focus on the tourism industry, which had this false glossy image of the city. All of these components influence punk ideals and more largly, art and activism in general. But I feel that San Diego, in comparison to the other cities you mentioned had and still has some sort of ability to create or produce things that are just ahead of the curve. This could be due to a number of things. One, I would assume is the fact that San Diego does not have a widely open platform for art, or creative elements. So if someone wants to do something creative, which may not fall into the mainstream, they literally had to execute every level in getting that art out to the world. So if it’s music, it would be anything from starting your own label, to playing shows in absurd places, to getting arrested for doing what one has the drive to do… and everything else in between. Two, I feel San Diego has such an eclectic art scene partially based on my first point, but also based on the fact that we have a fairly multi cultural city, so influences could literally come from so many facets of life. So in turn, the art that tends to come out of San Diego is a bit more obscure, a bit more punctual, and a bit more recognizable.
You went unknown for a long time while playing this music, and a lot of musicians in South Africa struggle with this also. What would be your advice to conquering this massive obstacle? And what sort of life did you live during the time that you were unknown?
Honestly, I still feel unknown in some respects and I have to say that I am not that different from when I started playing music. I mean, my taste and talents have evolved in my opinion. But for the most part, I was never trying to become known, or get noticed. I just simply did what I do and still do for the sheer fact that I want to create the art I am part of and that is it. If I get some sort of recognition or notoriety for what I am part of and accomplish, that is great. But that is not really a focal point or a reason for me doing what I do. I still have a “regular” job, still work hard at what I do, still do normal life things.
In South Africa, you’re known primarily for your work with The Locust. Can you tell us about how the band formed and the general aim you all held as a unit?
I’m actually surprised that I am known in South Africa. But as how The Locust formed is fairly typical. Bobby Bray (Guitarist) and Dave Astor (our original drummer) asked me to start a band with them, hoping to sound like Crossed Out. I recruited Dylan who was in Struggle with me and things came together. But it took a couple years and a few line-up changes before things were locked in. The introduction to Gabe and Joey came after a couple years and the four of us have been functioning as a unit ever since, which has been a bit over a decade now. Fortunately we all get along fairly well, so we have managed to stay intact for so long.
Was the Aggressive off-kilter Synth Heavy sound what you intended? Gabe Serbian actually began playing guitar for the band, how did everything evolve?
At the time we started the band, Dave Warshaw introduced the use of vintage synthesizers to us. Bobby and I obsessed on the idea of having this sort of brutal fast pasted music with synthesizers added, which at the time had not really been done or executed properly. We were huge fans of bands like Devo, PIL, The Cure, The Birthday Party, and so on. So we started to mess with the idea of absurd structure, timing, and changes accompanied with a more synthetic sound. Eventually Bobby and I littered our stringed instruments with effects, heightening the overall synthetic sounds we were looking to make. Gabe also originally joined on guitar and then moved over to drums when Dave Astor left the band, which turned out to be a blessing. I think the fact that we had one less instrument led way for less competition to be heard in the writing and over all recordings. Also we discovered that Gabe’s drumming ability was impeccable.
When did the full-body locust suits come into play and what’s the purpose behind them?
Just as Gabe moved to the drums we implemented the uniforms. At the time, there was not a lot of initial thought put into why we started wearing uniforms. We stumbled upon the first set at a second hand store in San Francisco just before we were heading over to Japan. We opted for uniforms to mock “critics” and haters of the band who put a lot of focus on some sort of irrelevant “locust look” that we were said to have. As time went on, we adapted the psuedo absurd idea and went further furtehr info creating more detailed uniforms, eventually morphing the look of the band. It played a few relevant parts in what the band would eventually become. Not only were we influenced by artists such as The Beatles, The Residents, and Devo, who also had uniforms, but we wanted to add more to the live performance and over all aestetic of the band.
You began your own record label (Three one G). What was the purpose of this?
The original idea was based off the fact that I was working with a couple small labels who were doing a poor job at being a label, as well as compromising the art and music quality. Since I had previously worked with Ebulltition, and knew how Gravity, Discord, and Vinyl Communications were run. I took cues and started my own label and ceased working with other smaller labels.
In South Africa, there is a problem with trends and labels. You went through this with The Swing Kids being labelled ‘Spock Rock’ due to your fashion sense, and The Locust still struggling with labels. What are your views on trends and labels? And the labels you were given?
I never really understood what that label consisted of aside from the basis of a mod haircut. But I do appreciate the fact that it is hard to nail down what genre might fit The Locust, or even Swing Kids. I do like the fact that the music itself avoids typical labels that would be accurately placed on the band. I suppose I just label it something as open as the term “art” and leave it at that. On occasion when asked what kind of music I play, I just say “annoying”.
South Africa, in terms of hardcore, is very complacent.
Our country is still caught up in the “Metalcore” scene, influenced by bands like As I Lay Dying and Haste the Day. What do you think of commercialized Metal like Metalcore and what should be done to move forward from this complacency?
Honeslty, I am not a fan of that genre, or at least the bands you listed. I do like metal, and grew up listeing to metal bands. Even released some metal bands on Three One G and depending on who you ask, people have even labelled Retox as metal. But as far as genres and even more so, very specific names for sub genres, I would just refrain from using those as a way to explain what I do, or enjoy. I think once you start to focus on labels, and very specific labels, you start to hinder the actual art from being noticed, accepted, and maybe even appreciated. I like what I think is good, simple as that. Maybe this stance ties onto the obscurities of the stuff that is better known from San Diego.
And for anyone who would like to get into your genre of music, spanning from Gravity Records to Three one G, who are some artists that you would recommend to listen to?
Well the thing is, if you were to look at the roster of artists on both Gravity and Three One G, you would see that say Antioch Arrow sounds nothing like Three Mile Pilot, or Cattle Decapitation sounds nothing like Quintron. So I see no need or even genre that could be placed on either label. I think it all ties into defining genres, challenging common art forms and ways that people execute their work, as well as how people perceive it. So as far as recommendations, I will just leave it up to the listeners, the fans, and the communities to discover who they like and what is relevant.